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Which of the AFC U-23 Asian Cup’s final four are favourites to be crowned champions?

Written by on April 28, 2024

Within a span of a fortnight, the 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup has whittled down to its final four.

The title contenders are now down to usual suspects Japan, perennial dark horses Uzbekistan and Iraq, as well as surprise package Indonesia.

Given the U-23 Asian Cup also double as the qualifiers for the men’s football tournament at the Olympic Games later this year, the quartet are now tantalisingly close to booking an in-demand ticket to Paris.

The top three teams will progress automatically, while the loser of Thursday’s third-place match will still have a shot in the form of an intercontinental playoff against African outfit Guinea.

With the semifinals to take place on Monday evening, we take a closer look at each team’s prospects of going all the way.

JAPAN

While they are traditional powerhouses of the continent, Japan have only won the tournament once before — in 2016 — and are, on paper at least, the current favourites.

They have not exactly blown teams away having tasted defeat against South Korea in the group stage, while also making a real meal of overcoming ten-man Qatar in the quarterfinals, yet their talent is undeniable.

While it appears that coach Go Oiwa is yet to settle on his strongest XI, this can also be viewed as a positive given the Samurai Blue have not exactly been affected by his regular squad rotation.

Despite being one of the two players in the squad that have won senior caps, forward Mao Hosoya has been wasteful in front of goal — meaning Japan’s primary threat has actually come from the deeper attackers such as Kuryu Matsuki and Fuki Yamada, while centre-back Seiji Kimura is curiously their current top scorer with two goals.

Nonetheless, the defence and midfield look extremely stable, especially with Joel Chima Fujita and Rihito Yamamoto often dictating possession in the engine room, with Japan every bit a chance of becoming the U-23 Asian Cup’s first two-time champions.

UZBEKISTAN

Undoubtedly the tournament’s in-form team, Uzbekistan have racked up four straight wins en route to the semis, with a superb record of 12 goals scored and none conceded.

The strength in depth at coach Timur Kapadze’s disposal will have left many of his counterparts envious, with the Uzbeks even being able to go their first two matches without the services of Europe-based star duo Abbosbek Fayzullaev and Abdukodir Khusanov.

Uzbekistan are hardly pushovers in Asian football but, for a while now, they have just been able to make the breakthrough into the continental’s upper echelon of teams like Japan, South Korea and Iran.

They do however have an outstanding track record at producing quality talent and, apart from their U-23 Asian Cup triumph in 2018, also finished fourth two years later while being runners-up at the last edition after losing to Saudi Arabia in the final.

The Uzbeks have clearly benefitted from a focus on youth with 12 members of the current U-23 squad already exposed to senior international football, and they have proven almost impossible to contain given their 12 goals have come through a spread of ten different scorers.

IRAQ

Just as the senior side did at the AFC Asian Cup at the start of the year before a controversial loss to Jordan in the round of 16, Iraq have slowly but surely emerged as contenders at the U-23 Asian Cup.

They did have to overcome their fair share of obstacles after losing their opening match to Thailand and then needing a win in their final group-stage tie against heavyweights Saudi Arabia to stand any chance of reaching the knockout round.

Yet, they duly did so to cap off a rise from the bottom to the top of Group C, before seeing off Vietnam — albeit via a contentious penalty — to advance from the quarterfinals.

Iraq may not have as many notable names as some of the other teams at the tournament but they do boast a few with overseas experience, plying their trade in various countries such as Sweden, Netherlands, Germany and Iran.

And in star man Ali Jassim, they have a livewire in the attacking third that is capable of winning any game of his own boot — which is a fine asset to have in the latter stages of tournament football.

INDONESIA

In their tournament debut, Indonesia have not only done brilliantly to reach the semifinals – but are now just one win away from playing Olympic football for the first time sine 1938, when they were still know as the Dutch East Indies and the Games remained a senior tournament.

A key factor behind Indonesia’s run has been their fearless approach, which has seen them claim almight upsets over Australia, Jordan and even South Korea in the quarterfinals, but it has not just been down to their endeavour.

Some of the football they have produced, especially against Jordan and South Korea, was nothing short of outstanding especially given their status as huge underdogs, with the likes of Marselino Ferdinan, Witan Sulaeman and Rafael Struick combining brilliantly in attack.

Indonesia coach Shin Tae-Yong deserves plenty of credit given Indonesian football was in the doldrums when he took over at the helm four years ago.

Still, considering the emphasis that has been placed in nurturing the young talent at Indonesia’s disposal, it is perhaps unsurprising that they have thrived given they boast a tournament-high 14 players in the squad that have been capped at full international level, including some that are already senior stalwarts like Marselino, Witan and captain Rizky Ridho.

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