Saudi Arabia’s young footballers continue to set high standards and are once again eyeing an age group tournament success.
The Young Falcons thrashed Maldives 9-0 on Wednesday in the second qualification game of the 2023 Asian U-17 Championship to stay on top of Group D and on course for a place at next year’s tournament.
Following the 6-0 defeat of Myanmar in the opening round two days previously, the most recent win keeps the Saudis three points ahead of India in second and Kuwait in third, the opponents in the next two games. Only the 10 group winners are guaranteed qualification, along with the six best-placed runners-up. With the start Saudi Arabia have made — as well as the advantage of playing all four group games in their home city of Alkhobar — the odds are looking good.
Perhaps the result of the team coming off a two-week training camp in the eastern city of Dammam, scoring goals has been no problem with 15 in two games so far, a strike rate that clocks in at a goal every 12 minutes. They have been spread around the team nicely too. Ramiz Al-Attar has contributed three with Talal Haji, Nawaf Al-Jadaani and Nawaf Al-Janahi all managing two each.
It has been the perfect start, but the real tests come on Friday and Sunday. The first is against Kuwait who lost 3-0 to India on Wednesday. It was a disappointing performance from the Blues who defeated Maldives and Myanmar before their loss and will almost certainly be out of the running, even for second place, if they lose to Saudi Arabia.
If coach Adbulwahab Nasser Al-Harbi’s men can take the three points on Friday, then a draw will almost certainly be enough against an improving India to take top spot. Given Saudi Arabia’s goal difference, it is also likely that just one win from the final two games will earn the youngsters at least a place in the tournament as one of the best runners-up.
Al-Harbi will be looking for four wins out of four, however. There is some pressure to do so. Saudi Arabia’s U-23 team won the Asian Championship in June, and the U-20 team lifted the Arab Cup in August, defeating Egypt in the final, and then went on to finish top of their group in qualification for the 2023 Asian Championships. The ambitions of the U-17 team are not just to qualify for the continental event but to win it wherever it takes place (the host has not yet been named).
Saudi Arabia have lifted the trophy, in its former guise as the Asian U-16 Championships in the inaugural meeting in 1985, and then repeated the feat in 1988. The best showing since then was a place in the semifinals in 1992, a record that is not good enough for one of the continent’s powerhouses. Other Arab winners are Oman, who have managed to do so twice, with Qatar champions in 1990 and Iraq triumphant in 2016. These teams, and others from the region, are all in action in the coming days.
In Group A, Japan look set for first place, leaving hosts Jordan, Syria and Turkmenistan fighting it out for that coveted second-placed spot. With Syria facing the impressive Japanese next, Jordan have a chance to move clear if they can defeat Turkmenistan. The UAE won their first two games in Group B, including a thrilling come-from-behind 4-3 win over a struggling Palestine team, but a 3-2 defeat to Indonesia leaves the situation looking uncertain heading into Friday’s crunch clash with Malaysia.
Group C is an all-Arabian affair. Oman are currently top as the only team with maximum points. Yet the next game is against Qatar in second, a meeting of two past champions, and this will go a long way to determining who qualifies. If Oman win, the group will likely be theirs. Lebanon are bottom with one point from the first three games, and Bahrain and Iraq both need to win their remaining games if they are to have a chance.
There is still a long way to go in Group E, though Yemen had a great start with an 8-0 demolition of Bhutan and face a big task against Singapore. Yet it could be the following game against hosts Bangladesh that decides what happens. A win there and Yemen should join Saudi Arabia in next year’s U-17 Championships, though Kuwait and India will still have something to say about that.