Japan wary of archrivals DPR Korea, Tajiks set for fiery debut: Group C preview
BANGALORE: Passion and drama are never in short supply when archrivals Japan and DPR Korea clash and, when the young guns from both teams are involved, one can expect the intensity of the encounter to be a few notches higher.
The age-old rivalry between both sides would have been enough by itself to make the match an edge-of-the-seat affair but the fact that Japan came through shaken yet victorious in the qualifying with a solitary goal win against none other than DPR Korea has added more spice to the Group C opener of the AFC Youth Championship on Sunday at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium.
The defeat had the effect of dumping DPR Korea in the playoff though they made the tournament proper without kicking a ball after an inexplicable pull-out by their ASEAN rivals Myanmar.
While Japan have flattered to deceive no less than five times in the Final of the Asian youth showpiece, the most recent heartbreak in memory being the 1-0 defeat to perennial champions Korea Republic in 2002, DPR Korea were joint-winners in 1976 with Iran, when the penalty kicks decider was yet to be introduced.
The closest their rivals came to entering their name into the record books in recent times was in 1990 when they lost in the Final to their rampant neighbours from the South of the peninsula. Incidentally, this was also the last time they managed to qualify for the Finals.
But for championship bridesmaids Japan, the story could have a happy ending this time. After all, coach Yasushi Yoshida’s squad – heavily drawn from the J-League - reads like a Stars of the Future list, populated by the likes of Sho Ito, Tsukasa Umesaki, Mike Havenaar and Atsuto Uchida.
Even a casual follower of the J-League knows any of the above players can turn around a match single-handedly, especially Ito, whose dazzling ball skills fetched him a trial with Premiership giants Arsenal and earned him rave reviews in the discerning English press, and Oita Trinita playmaker Umesaki, who is already walking tall after making his senior team debut in the AFC Asian Cup 2007 qualifiers recently and set to become a key element of Ivica Osim’s senior team puzzle.
So when Yoshida says that he wants his players to use the AFC Youth Championship to “become better for the Olympics and future FIFA World Cups”, he is just echoing the unanimous view of many.
And, as befits a coach who knows the full worth of his squad, Yoshida has already aimed beyond the continental title itself, ready to use it as a means to an end – a coveted spot in the FIFA u-20 World Cup next year in Canada. “Our first objective is to reach the semifinals and qualify for the FIFA U-20 World Cup,” said Yoshida. “We will target the Asian title only after this.”
Warning enough for the DPR Koreans, and also Iran and tournament debutants Tajikistan who round off the group.
The responsibility of spearheading DPR Korea’s forays rest on the young shoulders of inspirational striker Choe Myong-ho and if the 18-year-old is anywhere near the smashing form which fetched him the AFC Youth Player of the Year last year, then group rivals will have a job on their hands just trying to figure out how to stop him. Cho entered DPR Korea footballing folklore in 2005 after taking his team to the cusp of the FIFA U-17 World Championship semifinals in Peru with three goals in four games. Also in the squad are Choe’s FIFA tournament team mates Kim Kuk-jin and Kim Kyong-il.
The Tajiks have been the find of Asian football this year. While, the senior team wrested the inaugural AFC Challenge Cup, the u-17s finished third in impressive fashion in the AFC U-17 Championship. Now, the youth team is ready to carry on the baton in the same fashion, though they are destined for a baptism of fire against four-time champions Iran.
If Iranian coach Brazilian Alberto Oliviera has the likes of Iran Pro League outfit Peykan player Mehrdad Pooladi and talented goalkeeper Alireza Haghighi of Persepolis among his ranks, his Tajik counterpart Salohidin Gafurov can count on senior team playmaker Ibraguim Rabimov, who scored two goals in six AFC Challenge Cup games, and target-man Kamil Saidov.
Haghighi, 18, was in the news recently with a superlative performance against Saipa in the Iran Pro League when he saved a spot-kick from veteran Ali Daei, immediately putting the spotlight on the custodian who is also a member of the u-21 and u-23 squads and tipped to don the gloves in the Doha Asian Games and the Olympics qualifying too.
What could perhaps make a telling difference between both teams is the fact that Oliviera is a newcomer, having taken over the reins of Iran just six weeks back, while Gafurov was heavily involved in charting his team’s progress through the choppy qualifiers. It remains to be seen if Oliviera has struck a good chord with his charges in the short time he has been at the helm.
Gafurov, who will have a complement of two assistant coaches in the backroom, was relying on the performance of the u-17s to fire up his team and prod them into going one step further. “We don’t know much about our rivals but of course all of them are strong and very respectable,” said the Tajik coach. “But I have full belief in my players and I am confident they can achieve a good result as our u-17 stars.”
While Japan and Iran are favourites on paper to occupy the top two slots in the group and advance to the quarterfinals, both Tajikistan and DPR Korea are perfectly capable of upsetting the formbook.
The four semifinalists of the AFC Youth Championship have spots reserved for them in the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada next year.