The stage is set for the 2018 China AFC U23 Championship qualifiers, with the Cambodian capital hosting Japan, China and the Philippines over the next five days in a four-way battle for Eastern Zone Group J honours at the Olympic Stadium.
Following Sri Lanka pulling out of the event, 39 AFC member nations have been drawn into 10 groups in the qualification cycle for the 16-team championship, which is being held in four Chinese cities – Kunshan, Changshu, Jiangyin and Changzhou – from January 9-27.
By virtue of being hosts, China have already qualified for the Championship proper, regardless of the outcome of Group J.
Group winners will automatically move up to the finals, with the five best runners-up across the board also making the grade.
However, if China either top the group or finish among the best five runners-up, the sixth best second placed team will then also qualify.
The all-conquering Japanese side, who won the previous edition in Qatar in 2016, beating South Korea 3-2 in a nerve-jangling final, go out as the overwhelming favourites to top Group J as they take to the pitch as the zone’s No1 side at 3:30pm today against the Philippines, who lost all their matches in 2015 qualifying.
Cambodia will go into a twilight clash against China, kicking off at 6:30pm, in what national head coach Leonardo Vittorino regards as a stern test of character for the home side.
The Brazilian conceded that his side had been hemmed in by two tough rivals in Japan and China along with the Philippines, who have been showing marked improvement since being beaten 3-1 by Cambodia in the qualifying rounds two years ago.
Last week’s lacklustre showing against Thai giants Muangthong United in a friendly had raised concerns in the Cambodian camp, but the coach played down the significance of that outcome and called on his players to pursue this campaign with greater vigour and purpose.
Today: Japan v Philippines, 3:30pm, China v Cambodia, 6:30pm
Friday: Philippines v China, 3:30pm, Cambodia v Japan, 6:30pm
Sunday: Japan v China, 3:30pm, Cambodia v Philippines, 6:30pm
(All matches to be played at Olympic Stadium)