After missing a first-half penalty, Cambodia squeezed out a 1-0 win over the Philippines in an inconsequential fixture much to the delight of thousands of fans as China pulled off a 2-1 upset over defending champions Japan to clinch Group J honours in the AFC U23 Championship China 2018 qualifiers, which concluded at the Olympic Stadium yesterday evening.
As China have already qualified for January’s Championship proper as hosts, the sixth best second placed team will now get that qualifying slot along with all group winners and five best runners-up.
In a tense encounter marked by physicality from both sides and frequent verbal duels, the Chinese players raised their competitive edge several notches compared to their goalless draw against Cambodia and a laboured win over the Philippines.
With Japan unable to make much headway against robust opposition, China seized upon two speedy counterattacks to garner a 2-0 lead. Japan hit back late in the game to reduce the margin but China saw the game out comfortably.
Japan saw one of their players sent off for a reckless tackle in injury time.China’s three-match tally stands at seven points to Japan’s six, made up of an 8-0 win over the Philippines on the opening day and a 2-0 defeat of Cambodia two days later.
Cambodia finished third with four points and the Philippines, like their performance in the 2015 cycle, finished with no points.
At the start of the day Cambodia had a theoretical chance of levelling up with China in the event of Japan winning their third straight game. But once that hope was dashed the game between Cambodia and the Philippines was purely of academic interest.
The Philippines did well to keep Cambodia quiet in the first half, even surviving a penalty earned by Svay Rieng’s Sok Samnang.
But Army midfielder Chreng Polroth could do no better than drive the spot-kick straight at the goalkeeper.
Approaching the hour mark, coach Leonardo Vittorino’s decision to bring in Sun Vandeth was well borne out when the substitute triggered panic in front of the Philippines goal, with Sok Samnang quickly converging on the ball to find the back of the net.