BANGKOK: Saudi Arabia drew 0-0 with Qatar yesterday in Group ‘B’ of the AFC Under-23 Championship to leave both sides firmly in contention to reach the quarter-finals.
With one game each still to play, the result sees Saudi Arabia move to four points following their impressive defeat of Japan in their first match, with Qatar – in the wake of their draw with Syria – two points adrift of their regional rivals.
In the other Group ‘B’ match yesterday, Syria send Japan reeling out of the tournament with a 2-1 victory.
Syria join Saudi Arabia at the top of the standings with four points from their first two games and the duo will fight it out for top spot on Wednesday while Qatar will hope to pick up a win against the eliminated Japanese to keep their hopes alive of a place in the last eight.
On a warm and humid evening in the Thai capital, Saudi Arabia were boosted by the inclusion of striker Abdullah Al Hamdan who was named in his country’s starting 11 after recovering from an ankle injury picked up against Japan.
Following a cautious start at the Thammasat Stadium, there were tackles aplenty as both sides refused to give an inch, an approach that resulted in a tight and tense affair that was dominated by pockets of action in midfield.
Meanwhile, a breakaway goal two minutes from time by Syria’s Ala’a Aldin Dali condemned Japan to a 2-1 defeat.
In Group ‘C’ action, South Korea yesterday became the first team to qualify for the knockout stage with a 2-1 win over Iran.
First-half goals from Lee Dong-jun and Cho Gue-sung gave Kim Hak-bum’s side a two-goal half-time buffer but Reza Shekari’s effort nine minutes after the interval meant the Koreans had to negotiate a difficult period in order to extend its winning start to the competition.
The team’s perfect tally of six points from two matches means it is sure to advance to the knockout stage no matter what happens in Wednesday’s match against Uzbekistan, while Iran’s hopes of ending a 44-year Olympic qualification drought now weighs heavily on its final group stage fixture against China.
Iran had started the campaign with a 1-1 draw against defending champion Uzbekistan on Thursday.
This tournament also serves as qualification to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, where the top three teams, aside from host nation Japan, will represent Asia.
In the other Group ‘C’ match yesterday, Uzbekistan beat China 2-0.
Captain Islom Kobilov scored from the penalty kick and had another saved, before Nurillo Tukhtasinov came off the bench to seal an important win for Ljubinko Drulovic’s side with 10 minutes remaining.
China’s second defeat in succession means they can no longer advance to the knockout stage while Uzbekistan’s relatively handsome tally of four points from two matches means they require only a draw from their final group stage match against already qualified South Korea to advance.
Meanwhile, Bahrain last night stepped up its preparations to its last Group ‘A’ match against Australia tomorrow, starting 4.15pm Bahrain time.
Bahrain are at the bottom of the group with just one point while Australia are at the top with four, Thailand second with three and Iraq third with two points.
The top two from each of the four groups qualify for the quarter-finals.