Almoez Ali and Nguyen Quang Hai were two names, in particular, that enjoyed superb campaigns for Qatar and Vietnam respectively, although it was the collective effort of Uzbekistan’s White Wolves that ultimately ruled supreme.
Elsewhere, hosts China disappointed while powerhouses Japan, Korea Republic and Iraq failed to live up to expectations in a tournament that once again served up many moments to remember.
Hosts, holders off to winning starts
China could not have hoped for a better start, with Wei Shihao on the scoresheet in a resounding 3-0 victory over Oman, while Almoez scored the only goal of the game as Qatar saw off the Uzbeks in Group A’s opening matches.
Ko Itakura’s first-half strike ensured defending champions Japan began on the front foot following a 1-0 victory over debutants Palestine in Group B and DPR Korea kept pace with their East Asian rivals by overcoming Thailand by the same scoreline.
In Group C, Iraq looked as strong as ever in a competition they continually excel in as they eased to a 4-1 win over Malaysia, before Saudi Arabia netted two late goals to seal a 2-2 draw against West Asian neighbours Jordan.
Runners-up in 2016, Korea Republic fell behind against Vietnam after Quang Hai’s early goal but responded to claim a 2-1 win, with Australia also picking up three points following a 3-1 victory over Syria.
China’s opening-day win was not a sign of things to come, though, as they lost 1-0 against Uzbekistan and, after taking an early lead against Qatar, saw Almoez net twice in a 2-1 defeat as the Gulf state topped the group with a perfect three wins from three and the Uzbeks finished second following a 1-0 win over Oman.
Japan overcame both Thailand and DPR Korea to top Group B, where the real story was the emergence of Palestine, who drew with the Koreans before recording a stunning 5-1 win over the Thais to qualify for the quarter-finals at the first time of asking.
Another tournament debutant, Malaysia, wrote the headlines in Group C as the Southeast Asians drew with Jordan then defeated Saudi Arabia to finish second behind Iraq, who topped the standings on seven points.
Quang Hai’s deflected strike saw Vietnam beat Australia 1-0 and, after Korea Republic drew with Syria and defeated Australia to finish top of Group D, the Vietnamese came second following their scoreless draw with Syrians.
Defending champions stunned
Half of the eight quarter-finalists were making their first appearance in the knockout rounds with two of them – Palestine and Malaysia – doing so on their debut campaign.
2018 Quarter-finals: Japan vs Uzbekistan
After two failed attempts to go beyond the group stage, Uzbekistan were starting to look the real deal and an incredible eight-minute blitz late in the first half saw them score three without reply against Japan before the holders were eventually ousted in a remarkable 4-0 loss.
Almoez bagged another brace as Qatar raced to a 3-0 lead over Palestine but the Palestinians put up a brave fight before eventually going down, with their heads held high, following a 3-2 defeat.
Malaysia had impressed en route to the quarter-finals but they would suffer heartbreak against Korea Republic when, after a spirited display saw the game enter the last five minutes at 1-1, Han Seung-gyu popped up with the winner to end the Southeast Asians’ dream.
Another side from ASEAN, however, would live to fight another day as Vietnam and Iraq played out a thrilling 3-3 draw, in a game that saw four extra-time goals, before the Golden Stars scored five from five from the spot to eliminate the inaugural winners.
There was more extra-time drama in the semi-finals as Uzbekistan and Korea Republic went to an additional 30 minutes following a 1-1 draw in the allocated 90.
But, with the Taeguk Warriors a man down following Jang Yun-ho’s dismissal, they were unable to live with the Central Asians, who scored three – including an Azizjon Ganiev stunner – to advance to the final after a 4-1 victory.
Akram Afif and Almoez – two names that would reverberate around the Continent at the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 a year later – each scored for Qatar against Vietnam but Quang Hai twice pegged the West Asians back.
With the score at 2-2 after 120 minutes, penalties would once again decide the Vietnamese’s fate. Quang Hai missed, but this time it was his teammates who saved the day as they scored the Southeast Asians’ ensuing four penalties and, with Qatar failing to convert twice, a place in the final was secured.
Qatar did end their campaign on a high, though, as Afif scored the only goal of the game against Korea Republic to ensure the Maroons went one better then two years previously to finish third as Almoez picked up the top scorer accolade with six goals.
A little over a year later, five of Qatar’s starting line-up in the final, began the AFC Asian Cup final against Japan. Almoez and Afif were on the scoresheet in a 3-1 win, with the former’s nine goals a tournament record as Qatar were crowned Continental champions boasting a team brimming with youthful talent.
White Wolves on top in the snow
Winter hit hard in late January as heavy snow struck eastern China prior to the final and the teams took to the field at Changzhou Olympic Sports Centre in the most testing of conditions.
2018 Final: Vietnam 1-2 Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan seemed to deal with them better as Rustamjon Ashurmatov headed them in front early on, but Quang Hai’s ‘Rainbow in the Snow’ levelled proceedings as half-time approached.
Vietnam, competing in weather many of them had never even seen let alone played in, performed admirably and appeared to be heading for yet another penalty shootout as the game entered its 120th minute.
But there was drama at the last as Andrey Sidorov – off the bench just minutes earlier – volleyed home Dostonbek Khamdamov’s corner to seal victory at the death and deal the Golden Stars the cruelest of defeats.
For Uzbekistan, the win marked just their second title in AFC competitions after also lifting the 2012 AFC U-16 Championship trophy.
Vietnam, meanwhile, have gone from strength to strength since, winning the 2018 AFF (ASEAN Football Federation) Championship and reaching the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 quarter-finals.
Both will consider themselves strong candidates to win the AFC U23 Championship Thailand 2020 and, with it, advance to the Tokyo Olympics later in the year.