Thursday 18 May 2017

U20 World Cup Preview (Korea Republic 2017)

Asian football goes through long spells of inward looking, but in one of the few occasions we can really contest the continent’s talent against the rest of the world, the U20 World Cup rolls back into view with high expectations of those competing. In the past, Asia have generally punched above it’s weight in comparison to their senior efforts; Iraq’s impressive run to the semi-finals in 2013 is a recent reminder that Asian national teams can compete with the very best from Europe and South America in the final stages.

2015 in New Zealand was different, and it was easy to foresee from the outset. Alongside debutants Myanmar and Korea DPR, a promising but ultimately inexperienced Qatar side were eliminated at the first hurdle, finishing dead last and winless, bringing back bad memories of the clean sweep of 2014 in Brazil. The one glimmer of hope came through Uzbekistan, who be it fortunately passed through the group stages despite losing 2 of their 3 matches, managed to make it through to the quarter-finals where they lost to a stromg Senegal side.

This year’s edition should provide greater results, if not just for Korea Republic's hosting of the competition (the third time the country has held a World Cup; 2002 - Seniors, 2007 - U17, and 2017 - U20), but for a few reputable big guns of Asian football returning to the fray with a set of impressive squads on paper. Regular senior qualifiers Japan and Iran are joined by Saudi Arabia whose senior side have been the form side of the current World Cup qualification campaign and debutants Vietnam, who may prove to be more than merely there to make up the numbers. With a senior World Cup on the horizon, the coming month in Korea might give us a heads up to how lofty our ambitions should become over the next year.

Korea Republic

Manager: Shin Tae-Yong (KOR)
Qualification: Hosts
U20 WC Group A: Guinea, Argentina, England
Key Men: Lee Seung-Woo, Han Chan-Hee, Cho Youn-Wook

Asia’s leading light for so long at this level, Korea Republic’s regression would have caused greater concern if they weren’t afforded hosting privileges of the World Cup, after failing to qualify via traditional means for the second time in succession, something that hasn’t happened since 1989. Their shock group stage exit at the AFC Under 19 Championships last year (Asia’s qualification mechanism for the U20 World Cup), has hit the football fraternity in Korea hard, with concerns high that further below par performances could put a dampener on their hosting of the event

It’s fair to say however they look a different proposition some 9 months down the line. They immediately sacked the cautious and old fashioned coach Ahn Ik-Soo, replaced by former Olympic coach Shin Tae-Yong. Shin’s appointment has gained mixed reviews; after leading Korea out of a tough group in Brazil last year, Korea succumbed in the latter stages to Honduras. While in addition to this some questionable tactical decisions have left fans divided on his appointment.

Like in Brazil, where Shin could call upon the services of Son Heung-Min, Korea again possess one of the potential stars of the tournament in Lee Seung-Woo. The Barcelona man has been hyped for years as he rises through the La Masia ranks, but the question mark remains whether he can spearhead his country through such a high profile tournament? Alongside Lee (who didn’t partake in the U19s last year), fellow. Barcelona youth Paik Seung-Ho, is tipped to play a key part despite missing out on the action in Bahrain, while Cho Youn-Wook and Han Chan-Hee both look capable players to push Korea through a classically billed “group of death.”


Manager: Atsushi Uchiyama (JPN)
Qualification: Champions (AFC U19 Championship 2016)
U20 WC Group D: South Africa, Uruguay, Italy
Key Men: Ritsu Doan, Koki Ogawa, Yuta Nakayama

Last year’s two major AFC Youth Championships were comprehensively won by Japan, with their U19 cohort following in the footsteps of their U23s success last January. Every Japanese fan will hope that another false dawn isn’t just around the corner however, after experiencing a bitter blow to their Olympic hopes last year, ending in a miserable group stage exit in Brazil. As is the case in more than one occasion in Asia, talent alone doesn't always meet the expectation of the nation.

The quality at their disposal is up there with the best in the competition though, regular starters at club level, sprinkled with some unknown quantities that could ignite their tournament later down the line. MVP from Bahrain - Ritsu Doan has since grown into a leading light of Japanese football, having broken through with Gamba Osaka this season, scoring his debut continental goal in the AFC Champions League against Adelaide United earlier this month.

In attack, Koki Ogawa flanked by Yuto Iwasaki proved a lethal pairing in their U19s final run in, but instead the headline grabbing squad inclusion comes in the form of yet another East Asian Barcelona product, 15 year old Takefusa Kubo. The second youngest player ever to compete at the tournament, Kubo, has recently made his competitive debut with Tokyo, after being forced to leave La Masia on registration grounds, and is already being dubbed, predictably as the latest “Japanese Messi”. It’s likely that his impact will be restricted to appearing off the bench initially, but with such a strong squad available, Uchiyama’s men have ambitions of going close to matching their class of 99, including Yasuhito Endo and Shinji Ono, that went on to reach a U20 World Cup final.

Saudi Arabia

Manager: Saad Al-Shehri (KSA)
Qualification: Runners-Up (AFC U19 Championship 2016)
U20 WC Group F: Senegal, Ecuador, USA
Key Men: Rakan Al-Samiri, Sami Al-Najai, Abdulrahman Al-Yami

The air of optimism surrounding the senior national team at the moment, brought by Bert van Marwijk, has transcended through to the youth ranks of Saudi football. Saad Al-Shehri’s U19 squad were the most eye-catching side in Bahrain last year, scoring 16 goals, along the way to a narrow penalty shootout defeat to Japan in the tournament's final. In many ways Saudi football has struggled to develop a certain type of player, inventive, direct attacking players have been at a premium, but this squad seems to have developed quite a few to watch closely in that regard.

Diminutive but stocky wide man Rakan Al-Samiri highly impressed in Bahrain, providing both a quick instinct to cut in from the left onto his right foot in tight areas, to look for the killer final ball and to have the reactionary speed to pin back his opposing full back. Captain, Sami Al-Najai who topped the scoring charts last year, albeit mainly from dead ball situations (penalties and free kicks made up 3 of his 4 efforts), is a confident central midfielder with influence to make transitions quickly, in a side that thrives off the counter.

The main concern however is at the other end of the pitch, where Saudi Arabia look pretty weak. The keeping situation looks to be a calamity waiting to happen, with neither of the personnel between the posts in Bahrain coming anywhere near impressing - from an Asian standpoint, a meek keeping display is the last thing we need after 2015’s debacle. Their group on paper also looks tough, possibly not the most illustrious names on paper in the senior game, but all should concern an already fragile looking back line at youth level.


Manager: Amir Hossein Peiravani (IRI)
Qualification: Semi-finalists (AFC U19 Championship 2016)
U20 WC Group C: Costa Rica, Zambia, Portugal
Key Men: Reza Shekari, Omid Noorafkan, Reza Jafari

Despite missing out on a final appearance in qualification, Iran go into Korea as probably the AFC’s best hope of making it to the latter stages. With a larger amount of senior Iranian players now moving to Europe, the young players have benefitted in kind, with clubs willing to dip straight into the domestic market in search of talent, when previously they were regarded as an unknown risk (take note UAE, this is how to improve your national team).

Of the current squad, Reza Shekari stands out as the prized asset after confirming his transfer from Saipa in the Persian Gulf Pro League to Rostov in the Russian Premier League earlier this month, a club well renowned for fostering Iranian talent, with Sardar Azmoun in particular picking up the plaudits over the last 12 months. Shekari will play at the forefront of a very accomplished midfield, with ACL regular Omid Noorafkan and Mohammad Soltani Mehr providing support behind him.

Comparisons to their senior colleagues are already being compiled; striker Reza Jafari imitates the speed and clinical finishing of Kaveh Rezaei, Abolfazi Razzaghpour offers plenty going forward, from dead ball and wide situations, akin to Mehrdad Pooladi, and Shabab Adeli, who is following down a similar career path at Naft Tehran, looks set to emulate Team Melli keeper Alireza Beiranvand. There are some real gems within this squad, but a greater solidity is needed, especially in defensive situations to contain an improved set of contenders. Looking for their first victory at this level since 1977, they couldn’t be better placed to write their own piece of history in Korea.


Manager: Hoang Anh Tuan (VIE) 
Qualification: Semi-finalists (AFC U19 Championship 2016)
U20 WC Group: New Zealand, France, Honduras
Key Men: Bùi Tiến Dũng, Hồ Minh Dĩ, Doan Van Hau

Playing at their first 11-a-side FIFA event in their history, Vietnam might be forgiven to be purely making up the numbers, given what they’ve achieved so far. While I have worries that they’ll emulate Myanmar’s disastrous debut two years previous, there is an extra killer instinct about this squad, which in the main can rely on regular league experience throughout the squad.

Vietnam’s qualification stage came off the back of a finals place in the South East Asian equivalent the year before, and a follow up 3rd placed finish in the 2016 edition the month prior to the kick off in Bahrain. Subsequent to their semi-final run in the continental U19 showpiece, Vietnam have prepared arguably better than any other at this tournament, playing a number of friendlies since the turn of the year, including a tour of Europe and warm up matches against fellow U20WC qualifiers Vanuatu and Argentina in the last month.

Doubters will point to their performances in Bahrain, which on the whole were submissive, that is until the crucial moments. While they’ll no doubt need to rely on the more than competent looking Bui Tien Dung in net, Vietnam proved that when needed they could force themselves across the line. A last minute winner to beat North Korea in the group stage sealed their passage through to the knockouts, while a clinical winner against the hosts in the quarter-finals despite hanging on for much of the match, showed what they can do in precious moments. While criticised locally for wasting more than the odd opportunity Ha Duc Chinh, proves a handful in attack, while wide men Ho Minh Di and Tran Thanh offer unpredictability in support.

Aside from the teams taking part, FIFA will continue to test solutions to problems that really don’t exist. The VAR initiative which I’ve hotly discussed before is the first of a few changes in Korea, the second being the option of a fourth substitution in extra-time, something that was available but wasn’t called upon at December’s Club World Cup. If ties go all the way to penalties, the so-called “ABBA” sequencing of spot kicks will be deployed, which will involve back-to-back kicks for each team after the opening penalty. With corruption and political interference still rife within Asian and World football, it seems the authorities are more concerned in tinkering with the game we love rather than sorting out their mess behind the scenes.

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