Asia’s young footballers get the ideal stage to showcase their skills when the 2018 AFC U19 Championship qualifiers get underway across the continent as 42 teams compete and 10 venues including Phnom Penh play host to as many groups.
The showpiece event to be held in Indonesia next year will have 16 teams including the hosts. All group winners and the five best runners-ups qualify for the tournament proper. If Indonesia, who are assured of qualification as hosts, either win their group or finish second, then the sixth best runner-ups will qualify.
With Cambodia’s senior team beginning to fade away in Asian Cup third round qualification and player succession plans having failed to ensure a healthy progression of talent – as demonstrated by the poor showing in August’s SEA Games – the stakes are high for this age band of players who are likely to make the transition to the higher levels over the next few years.
Cambodia coach Inoue Kazunori highlighted the importance of the challenge on the eve of the Kingdom’s opening encounter in Group G against China, which kicks off today at Olympic Stadium at 6:30pm.
The other two teams in the group, Myanmar and Philippines, will set the ball rolling at the same venue in an earlier kick-off at 3:30pm.
A fighting goalless draw against China in the U23 qualifiers back in July should serve as an encouraging sign for the home side, but it is an entirely different set of players and circumstances that surround this encounter.
Coach Kazunori struck a confident note yesterday that his players will seize this chance and give a good account of themselves, though he conceded a very tough task was ahead for the team in all three matches.
On the strength of their impressive performances at this level, China are the favourites to top the group, with Myanmar coach Nyi Nyi Latt confident of his team’s chances of making it to the next stage.
As one official put it: “there are no pushovers. Every team will have to be at its best, and every goal that is scored or prevented counts.”
In the early match on Thursday, Philippines face China, while Cambodia take on Myanmar in the evening.
The final group matches will be played on Saturday, with China and Myanmar squaring off, leaving Cambodia and the Philippines to contest the twilight game.