With the 2018 AFC U-23 Championship now over, Scott McIntyre picks his best players from the last three weeks of riveting action in China.
Close to three weeks after the AFC U-23 Championship began in China, we finally have a winner as Uzbekistan – having emerged from a first half where their white kit almost melted into the snowy surrounds – lifted the trophy as night fell in Jiangsu.
As I’ve noted consistently throughout the event what’s far more important than wins or losses was the growth, exposure and development of young players at a tournament where those who prioritized the former risk ultimately damaging the long-term progress of that nation’s football.
Swallow all the Cinderella stories you want this week, come back to me in five years and we’ll see how it’s all played out.
If a tactical approach by certain nations that clearly showed their coach lacked any belief in their attacking capabilities whatsoever (against an uneven field of opponents wrestling with different objectives) is actually seen as restoring belief in the region, then I must’ve been doing this all wrong across a decade and a half of covering youth football and speaking with some of the best youth coaches on the planet.
So back to what really matters and that’s the spotlight that shone on the young talent present and both what that means for their progression or establishment in the senior national side as well as what it can do for their prospects of being picked up by a strong club side where they can continue to develop.
It was little surprise to see that some of the finest technicians came from those nations with the best youth setups, led by Qatar and Vietnam. And for my Vietnamese friends that are still confused, I’ve done nothing but praise this generation of players for several years; what I fundamentally object to is the conservative tactical approach of a coach who is placing results in youth football above all else – and history tells us that’s folly.
Having sat through every minute of every match at the Championships I’ve complied a Best XI as I’ve seen it, along with the three most outstanding performers that we’ve awarded the Golden, Silver and Bronze Balls.
There will be debate, as there should be, about the players on this list but I’m fairly confident that – when we look back in half a decade or so – the majority of these players will likely be established senior stars and key contributors for their clubs wherever that may be.
In terms of the criteria used, I didn’t assess how far the teams went in the tournament, rather simply how important each player was for their side, their individual performances and especially their technical proficiency, for it’s that which will determine a huge part of the future of the young players here – completely separate to any concept of wins or losses at youth level.
PLAYER OF THE TOURNAMENT (GOLDEN BALL): Akram Afif (Qatar)
With the snow that’s been falling in and around Jiangsu over the past couple of days the roads are icy and slick but if there’s one player you’d imagine to have no trouble with the conditions wherever he is, it’s the dancing feet of the Qatari talisman.
Long touted as a standout talent, Afif didn’t fail to live up to those lofty standards here and was a crucial part of his nation’s push to the semifinals.
Although nominally lining up as a left winger, as the tournament progressed he floated centrally more often and has the dazzling feet and control to glide past or around defenders, the vision to see the play unfolding and consistently pick the right pass as well as the poise and control to alter the tempo as required – for mine, he’s easily the standout.
SILVER BALL: Nguyen Quang Hai (Vietnam)
A graduate of the excellent youth setup at Hanoi FC the first thing that’s obvious is his grace and ease on the ball – as is the case with much of this outstanding technical generation of Vietnamese talent. The difference was that when things were truly on the line he stepped up with some moments of pure magic, scoring the winner against Australia in the group stage, a brace that single-handedly dragged his side back into the semifinal clash with Qatar and that superb free-kick that squared things up in the final – a player of immense talent.
BRONZE BALL: Zabikhillo Urinboev (Uzbekistan)
To look at him in full flight is to see not perhaps the smoothest mover but the Pakhtakor man was a huge presence for his nation as much without the ball as with it as he constantly made incisive runs that drew defenders away and opened up passing and running lanes for his teammates and he was also more than comfortable running at defenders with a soft first touch and strong shot.
TEAM OF THE TOURNAMENT (BEST XI)
Goalkeeper: Bui Tien Dung (Vietnam) – When looking at the keepers who are likely to go on and have strong careers outside of their homeland it’s more logical to peg the likes of Qatar’s Mohammed Al-Bakari, Uzbek Botirali Ergashev or Korea Republic’s Kang Hyeon-mu. But in terms of coming up big when it most mattered none was as consistent as the Thanh Hoa man. It’s his slight frame and height that will hamper him at the next level but in terms of pure shot-stopping ability he’s right up there with the best at the tournament and he was obviously outstanding in the back-to-back penalty shootout wins that saw Vietnam into the final.
Right-back: Matthew Davies (Malaysia) – In a Malaysian side that were very much focused on restraint just as their ASEAN neighbours Vietnam were, it was Davies who provided a solid thrust pushing forward on the right where his passing was crisp and accurate and in his defensive work too he was consistent and reliable.
Centre-back: Dostonbek Tursunov (Uzbekistan) – Didn’t feature in the first match but was a rock thereafter at the back for this impressive Uzbek side. Mixing an imposing aerial command that saw him win most of his one-on-one battles with a good sense of timing in the tackle he was also confident in his distribution and when stepping into midfield.
Centre-back: Gao Zhunyi (China) – Despite China being bundled out in the group stage it was only really an unfortunate red card in the final match that saw them depart and there were several impressive performers in their group matches, not many better than Gao. Although his distribution at times was slightly inaccurate, he was a key part of the team’s buildup from the back and made a string of good, clean, one-on-one tackles (including a brilliant goal-line effort against Oman) and with strong positioning outside of that he was a calm and assured presence.
Left-back: Lee Gun (Korea Republic) – A standout at the back for a Korean side that only narrowly missed the final and although he could be a touch over-aggressive at points he stuck brilliantly to his man in dangerous one-on-one situations, cut off passing lanes with good positioning and made some outstanding tackles and interceptions as well as being a lively threat going forward with a great motor – surely a national star in the making.
Right wing: Nguyen Quang Hai (Vietnam) – A sublime technician who for me – as impressive as he was – wasn’t able to fully showcase his full range of talents given the conservative tactical approach. Regardless, he showed outstanding mentality and belief to come up with some massive goals when games were really on the line and with Nguyen Cong Phuong largely isolated up front, almost all of the attack ran through the brilliant right-sided Hanoi FC man.
Central midfield: Odiljon Xamrobekov (Uzbekistan) – Sitting at the base of the midfield trio in Uzbekistan’s 4-2-3-1, the lively playmaker was a reliable passer whether long and short and often dropped to split the central defenders and patiently start the buildup. He capably kept things in check in a screening role when his side lost possession and was named the AFC’s Player of the Tournament and he was certainly one of the key cogs for the champions.
Central midfield: Akram Afif (Qatar) – With Wei Shihao on the left wing, we’ve slotted in the versatile Afif (my player of the tournament) in a central midfield role and as noted above the Qatari magician has the ability to flick the switch and create game-changing moments out of nothing – expect him to be the face of the home 2022 World Cup side.
Left wing: Wei Shihao (China) – A Cristiano Ronaldo clone on the left flank whose running style and way of playing the ball are clearly modeled on the Portuguese star. An upright, powerful, runner who can beat his man inside or out, he was slightly over-indulgent at points but had the presence to worry opposing defences. Shone in the first match where he created two and scored the other in a 3-0 win over Oman and came within centimetres of handing China a stoppage-time draw with eventual champions Uzbekistan in the second match.
Forward: Zabikhillo Urinboev (Uzbekistan) – As noted above, the Uzbek forward was one of the ‘quietest’ stars at the tournament. Having got through a mountain of work off the ball, in terms of dropping, scheming and pressing he was still able to burst forward and create a whole stack of trouble in and around the box and was perhaps a slightly overlooked star of the junior White Wolves.
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Forward: Almoez Ali (Qatar) – The leading scorer at the final tournament, the lanky frontman was a constant threat whether on the ground or in the air. A graceful mover who drifted wide and deeper looking for space he was clinical in his finishing and with several years of senior international football as well as European club experience under his belt he’s clearly a name to watch in the lead-up to the 2022 World Cup.
GK: Mohammed Al-Bakari (Qatar)
DF: Bassam Al-Rawi (Qatar)
DF: Hamdan Al-Shamrani (Saudi Arabia)
DF: Mousa Farawi (Palestine)
MF: Shion Inoue (Japan)
MF: Luong Xuan Truong (Vietnam)
MF: Javohkir Sidikov (Uzbekistan)
MF: Safawi Rasid (Malaysia)
MF: Oday Dabbagh (Palestine)
MF: Jasurbek Yakhshiboev (Uzbekistan)
MF: Daniel De Silva (Australia)
FW: Baha’ Faisal (Jordan)
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