Vietnam favourites at 2020 AFC U23 Championship

Wednesday, 2020-01-08 10:18:19
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Experts consider Vietnam as favourites at the upcoming 2020 AFC U23 Championship. (Photo: Vietnam Football Federation)
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NDO – The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has said that, even without key defenders Doan Van Hau and Tran Dinh Trong, Vietnam U23s are formidable opponents that all teams should not underestimate at the 2020 AFC U23 Championship, which will officially kick-start on January 8.

>>> Vietnam finalise squad for 2020 AFC U23 Championship

In a recent article reviewing the four teams in Group D, which sees the presence of reigning runners-up Vietnam, UAE, Jordan and the DPR Korea, the AFC highly praised the ability of coach Park Hang-seo's side. From an “unknown” team, who were even considered a lowly side in the previous tournament two years ago in China, Vietnam under the guidance of Park shocked Asia, winning a series of big names on their way to the final, where the “Golden Stars” lost 2-1, with the winning goal having only come in the 120th minute, after leveling 1-1 before the end of the first half.

Having finished second in the 2018 AFC U23 Championship, Park's men are ranked in the top seed group at this year's tournament and thus will avoid tough opponents in the group stage. Vietnam fell into a fairly favourable group with the presence of Jordan, DPR Korea and the UAE. After continuous impressive achievements over the two years since the feat in China, Park's side are highly praised by football professionals in the upcoming tournament in Thailand. “Having lost the final to Uzbekistan in 2018, Vietnam will be bullish about their chances of going the extra step to be crowned Continental champions Thailand 2020,” wrote.

“Talisman Nguyen Quang Hai will be central to Vietnam’s chances, and with six more players in the squad having been part of the side at either the 2019 AFC Asian Cup team or the 2018 AFF Cup, or both, there is enough winning mentality in this Vietnam side to weather the absence of names such as Doan Van Hau and Tran Dinh Trong,” it added.

Park has tested his boys in some new positions to help ensure Vietnam are well prepared for the upcoming tournament. (Photo: Vietnam Football Federation)

Doan Van Hau is with his teammates at Dutch side SC Heerenveen for a short training camp in Spain to prepare for the next important phase of the current Eredivisie season. It is a big loss for the "Golden Stars" as Park’s top choice left-back is unable to play with Vietnam U23s in the AFC tournament, especially given how brightly Van Hau shone at the recent Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in last December, with a brace against Indonesia in the final to bring home the first gold medal in men’s football in SEA Games for Vietnam. However, in Park's hands, there are still many other quality names to replace Van Hau.

With over-aged right-back Trong Hoang and left-back Van Hau to be absent in the upcoming tournament, Park has been actively searching for possible replacements at both wings, with prominent players Ho Tan Tai, Thanh Thinh, Ngoc Bao, Trong Hung, Thai Quy and Viet Anh having been named. In two recent friendly matches with V.League 1 side Becamex Binh Duong and Bahrain U23s, the Korean strategist continued to pilot his players in the new positions on the wings of the defensive line.

Ho Tan Tai is the best hope in the right wing, but after the Becamex Binh Duong's defender successfully completed the task of filling the left-back position left by Doan Van Hau in the SEA Games final, it is likely that Park would like to drag the right defender to the left wing, as his teammate Thanh Thinh may still not be able to fully ensure his physical strength after recovering from an injury.

However, Tan Tai will be suspended in Vietnam’s Group D opener against UAE on Friday because he received two yellow cards in the qualifying stage. Therefore, coach Park has also piloted a number of other replacements, notably making midfielder Nguyen Trong Hung play in the right-back position while bringing centre-back Ngoc Bao to the left-back, as in the friendly with Bahrain U23s on January 3. This is not the first time Trong Hung has been tested in this position. He previously played in the right wing in a friendly match against Binh Duong last December, instead of playing as a left forward as usual. Although they lost 2-1 to Bahrain, Park's boys can gain useful lessons before officially starting their important journey on January 10.

If Trong Hung can adapt to his new position, it will be a surprise for Vietnam’s opponents in the AFC tournament. (Photo: Vietnam Football Federation)

In the recent match with Bahrain, defender Dinh Trong also featured on Vietnam’s starting line-up and played the first 45 minutes after almost a year treating his ligament injury. Although he has just recovered, Trong's return is good news for the team. The Hanoi FC player is currently the No. 1 centre-back of Vietnamese football. If he regains his best fitness and form, surely the defensive line of Vietnam U23s will be much stronger, let alone trio Thanh Chung - Duc Chien - Huynh Tan Sinh, who played very well in the 2019 SEA Games.

Moreover, Dinh Trong’s return also offers Park additional options to strengthen his midfield, since the Korean coach can push Duc Chien, with his advantages in physique and defensive ability, to play as a defensive midfielder, as he has played in the SEA Games clashes against Indonesia and Thailand.

Dinh Trong (C) played well in the first 45 minutes of the friendly against Bahrain U23s on January 3. Despite losing 2-1, Vietnam have learned a lot after their final rehearsal for the AFC tournament. (Photo: Vietnam Football Federation)

After the training camp in Bangkok, Vietnam travelled to Buriram on January 6 to continue their training there in preparation for their first two Group D games against UAE U23s (5:15 pm on January 10) and Jordan U23s (8:15 pm on January 13). As the 2020 AFC U23 Championship finals will also act as an Asian qualifying campaign for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the Thailand-based tournament will be much more competitive. There are only three Olympic slots, for the top three teams (if hosts Japan make it into the semi-finals, the top four teams will all automatically qualify for the 2020 Olympics), so all teams will bring strong squads with full of determination to Thailand.

The two matches in Group D’s opening matchday on Friday. (Photo: AFC)

Vietnam’s Group D is no exception. The reigning runners-up are joined by 2013 bronze-medalists Jordan as well as DPR Korea and the UAE in pursuit of two quarter-final tickets, before aiming for an Olympic berth in the semi-finals. At this year’s tournament, Vietnam will no longer be a surprise, as in China two years ago, and they will definitely not be underestimated this time around.

Park's side will face UAE U23s in their opener on Friday. Having competed at the 2012 London Olympic Games by a side led by the likes of Omar Abdulrahman and Ahmed Khalil, who are key players under the Emirati senior squad facing Vietnam in the Asian Qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in last November, UAE team at the 2020 AFC U23 Championship is a new generation of Emirati players, who are looking to “better their 2013 and 2016 performances when they reach the tournament’s quarter-finals,” said the AFC. They are certainly formidable opponents for Vietnam U23s, as several young players in the squad have joined the senior team.

UAE are considered the strongest opponents for Vietnam in Group D. (Photo: UAEFA)

“Khalifa Al Hammadi, Ali Saleh and Jassim Yaqoob were all key members of the UAE’s senior team during the first part of the Asian Qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023, while the likes of Mohammed Al Attas and Abdullah Ramadan have also featured heavily,” commented on Vietnam U23s’ first opponents. In addition, Polish coach Maciej Skorza also has the No. 1 goalkeeper of Al Wahda FC, Mohammed Al Shamsi, with significant AFC Champions League experience. Considered by AFC as one of the tournament’s most experienced sides, UAE U23s can be said to be the biggest obstacle for Park's boys, to be faced right in the opening game.

In addition, Vietnam will face familiar foes in Jordan. A year ago, coach Park Hang-seo helped the Vietnamese national team beat Jordan in the penalty shootout in the Asian Cup’s Round of 16 to advance to the quarter-finals. Exactly one year later, Park will again lead Vietnam, this time with the U23 side, to encounter Jordan (U23s) in another AFC tournament. An unbeaten Group E qualifying campaign saw Jordan book their place in Thailand 2020 by topping their group. They are also determined to repeat their third-place finish in Oman six years ago, which would mean a ticket to Tokyo 2020.

Jordan will not have the service of promising star Al Tamaari in their first two group matches. (Photo: Jordan FA)

The so-called current "golden generation" of Jordan’s football, led by veteran coach Ahmed Abdulqadir, who brought Jordan to the 2007 FIFA U20 World Cup, really cannot be underestimated. Among the notable faces of Abdulqadir's side is the 1999 midfielder, Omar Hani, who is currently playing in Europe in Cypriot side APOEL, the most successful team in Cyprus. However, Hani's teammate at APOEL, midfielder Musa Al Tamaari, is the brightest star of Jordan football. The good news for Vietnam U23s is that the star player who has been dubbed "Jordan’s Messi" will not be able to join his teammates until the final match of the group stage because he is still busy playing for his host club. Tamaari can only fly to Thailand after APOEL finishes their match in Cypriot First Division’s 16th matchday in the early morning of January13, meaning that he will definitely miss the match with Vietnam U23s on the same night.

Having to face two strong opponents in the first two matches, Park will have to make accurate decision both in terms of personnel and tactics. Winning a point against the UAE in the opening match can be seen as a success because UAE U23s are considered the strongest opponents in Group D for Vietnam. It will be an advantage for Park's side to claim at least a draw in the opener to continue with their second match against Jordan, who do not have their strongest squad, before fighting mysterious DPR Korea in the last group game. Of the 16 teams present in Thailand 2020, only defending champions Uzbekistan (three) have scored less goals than DPR Korea’s four goals over all three of the qualifying matches, however, their strength is a solid defence that conceded just one goal in the unbeaten qualifiers campaign (two wins, one draw) to win tickets to the finals with the top place in Group G of the qualifying round.

DPR Korea, in Group D, are difficult to study due to limited information about the mysterious team. (Photo: AFC)

This tournament marks the fourth time that DPR Korea have reached the finals, making them one of 10 teams which have appeared in every edition of the competition since its inauguration in 2013. In their three previous attempts, DPR Korea only advanced past the group stage on one occasion, back in 2016 when they scrapped through despite only mustering two points, with goal difference seeing them edge out Saudi Arabia and Thailand. A quarter-final exit at the hands of Qatar followed, while 2018 saw a group stage exit despite having had a better points-tally. In terms of squad correlation, DPR Korea U23s can be considered the weakest among the three opponents of Vietnam U23s in Group D. If difficulties against UAE and Jordan are successfully overcome, the match against DPR Korea on January 16 can be considered as a decisive one for Quang Hai and his teammates to compete for the ticket to the next round.