Riyadh: At first glance for Saudi Arabia, the 2023 AFC U-20 Asian Cup that kicks off on Wednesday looks a little like last June’s U-23 Championships which was won by the young Green Falcons.
Firstly, the venue is once again Uzbekistan, the scene of the triumph from nine months ago.
Secondly, Saudi Arabia are, once more, in Group D. And thirdly, Japan are again present as are a Central Asian nation, though this time Kyrgyzstan instead of Tajikistan, and there is also a dark horse in the shape of China and not the UAE.
Overall, it follows the same classic format: 16 teams split into four groups of four with the top two from each going into the knockout stages where the fun will really begin.
Throw in the fact that Saudi Arabia are the defending champions at this age level — though the last time the tournament took place was in 2018 — and there is no doubt that they are one of the favorites to lift the trophy again.
Similar to the U-23 team last June, the opening game is against Central Asian opposition. Against Tajikistan, the U-23s got off to a great start with a 5-0 win. Abdullah Radif was one of the goalscorers that day as a teenager and is back in the squad this time around.
On loan from Al-Hilal to Al-Taawoun, the striker, who only recently entered his third decade, is one of the great hopes of Saudi Arabian football and has also appeared for the senior national team. He made his debut in the Arab Cup at the end of 2021 and also played in a couple of friendlies against Iceland and North Macedonia in the preparation period for the World Cup.
If he can handle the expectations, Radif could be one of the stars of the next few weeks.
He was also top scorer at the 2022 Arab Cup U-20 when his six goals helped Saudi Arabia to the title. Then, the best player award went to Musab Al-Juwayr, one of Asia’s brightest young stars. The Al-Hilal youngster has already had quite a year. He scored for Saudi Arabia against Yemen in the Gulf Cup in January and also made his mark for Al-Hilal at the FIFA Club World Cup last month.
He came off the bench in extra-time of the clash between the Asian champions and African champions Wydad AC, on the home soil of their rivals and in front of a huge and passionate Moroccan crowd. The midfielder was given the fifth penalty of the shootout and showed nerves of steel in dispatching the last kick that broke the hearts of 50,000 fans in the stadium to send Al-Hilal through. There can be few, if any, other players with that kind of experience in this tournament.
Coach Saleh Al-Mohammadi was in charge for the victorious U-20 Arab Cup campaign and can cement his reputation with more success and follow in the footsteps of U-23 boss Saad Al-Shehri.
After the opener against Kyrgyzstan comes China, a team that Saudi Arabia defeated in qualification last September. Football in China is going through the doldrums, and it would be a surprise if they finish above Japan or Saudi Arabia. The plan will be to try and qualify for the knockout stages before the final game against the Japanese, a talented team that will also be looking to go far.
If all goes well in Group D, then Saudi Arabia could well face fellow Arab teams Oman or Jordan in the quarter-finals. Jordan topped their qualification group above Syria though and want to build on that momentum.
Oman are looking to try and follow in the footsteps of the senior team who impressed in qualification for the 2022 World Cup when they finished just behind Australia under Branko Ivankovic.
With Spanish coach David Gordo at the helm of the youngsters, the hope in Muscat is that Oman are on their way to establishing a style of playing that goes across the various national teams, and training camps in Qatar and Uzbekistan means they will be well-prepared.
After the disaster of the World Cup with three defeats on home soil, Qatar are desperately looking for some good news. Spanish coach Inaki Gonzalez led the team through qualification with impressive smoothness as they won all four games, scoring 14 and conceding just once. The group, along with Australia, Iran, and Vietnam, is a tough one however but should they get to the quarter-finals then anything could happen.
Then in Group A are Syria and Iraq. Hosts Uzbekistan are expected to take one of the top two spots, meaning that the two Arab teams may be fighting it out with an Indonesia team expected to present a stiff challenge.
Saudi Arabia will not fear anyone. Things have been going very well in the country’s football scene of late, as last June’s U-23 win in Uzbekistan showed. There is no reason why the U-20 team cannot do something similar.