RIYADH: Asia’s brightest emerging talents will battle for continental glory when the AFC U23 Asian Cup Uzbekistan 2022 kicks off on Wednesday, the first time it has been hosted in the Central Asian region.
The AFC U23 Asian Cup has in the past served as a launch pad for some of the biggest stars in Asian and world football, including Japanese and Liverpool ace Takumi Minamino, Iranians Mehdi Taremi and Alireza Beiranvand, as well as 2019 winner and top goal scorer Almoez Ali of Qatar.
Taking place over 19 days, the tournament will see Asia’s top 16 teams compete over 32 matches across four venues, three of which are in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent; namely the Bunyodkor Stadium – which will stage Wednesday’s opener and the final on June 19 – the Pakhtakor Stadium, and Lokomotiv Stadium, as well as the Markaziy Stadium in the southern Uzbek city of Qarshi.
In a double-header opener, Group A contenders Iran and 2018 third-place finishers Qatar will go head-to-head at the Bunyodkor Stadium, while Australia prepare to face Group B opponents Kuwait, who will mark their return after a nine-year absence at the Markaziy Stadium.
The opening-day action will continue at the Pakhtakor Stadium later in the evening as host nation and 2018 champions Uzbekistan begin their Group A campaign against debutants Turkmenistan before Group B challengers Jordan face 2013 winners Iraq in Qarshi at 10 p.m.
The Group C contests will kick off the following day when defending champions South Korea, who will be looking to become the first side to clinch back-to-back titles, face Malaysia at the Lokomotiv Stadium, with ASEAN rivals Thailand and Vietnam set to relive their Southeast Asian Games gold-medal final match – which concluded in favor of the hosts in Hanoi two weeks ago – at the Bunyodkor Stadium two hours later.
Group D will see a titanic clash between 2016 champions Japan and the UAE at the Pakhtakor Stadium on Friday before Saudi Arabia, runners-up at the last edition in Thailand, take on debutants Tajikistan at the Lokomotiv Stadium.
As things stand, Uzbekistan, South Korea, Iraq, and Japan, have all been crowned champions once and will aim to secure the title for a second time. Meanwhile, the likes of Saudi Arabia and Vietnam will look to give it their all to improve their runners-up positions.
With the much-coveted title at stake, the fifth edition of the AFC U23 Asian Cup will also see the full implementation of the video assistant referee system across all matches for the second successive time.
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