With just four days remaining until the tournament begins, join the-AFC.com for a look at the key names from Uzbekistan, Korea Republic, China PR and Islamic Republic of Iran.
The top two sides in Group C will advance to the quarter-finals, while the tournament’s top three finishers will qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
Qualification method: Group F winners
2018 performance: Champions
Best finish: Champions (2018)
Tournament winners in China PR two years ago, Uzbekistan return to the AFC U23 Championship aiming not only to defend their title, but to book what would be an unprecedented berth at Tokyo 2020.
Six of the title-winning squad of 2018 are among the travelling party again this time around, including Aziz Ganiev and Jasurbek Yakhshiboev, both of whom were part of the starting line-up in the epic 2-1 final win over Vietnam in Changzou.
Another of the returning cast, FC Nasaf forward Bobir Abdixolikov, comes into the tournament in hot form after bagging a hat-trick in one of two wins against Iraq last week, while full-back Khojiakbar Alijonov arrives fresh from a trophy-laden season with FC Pakhtakor aiming to add more silverware to his personal collection.
Qualification method: Group H winners
2018 performance: Fourth place
Best finish: Runners-up (2016)
Not since 1984 has a men’s Olympic football tournament taken place without Korea Republic, and while a memorable run to last year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup final might suggest the East Asians would be among the favourites to seal one of the three qualification places on offer this time around, head coach Kim Hak-bum’s squad bears little resemblance to the one which impressed in Poland last May.
Valencia starlet Lee Kang-in is one of several European-based players to have been ruled out, although SC Freiburg’s Jeong Woo-yeong has been included in an overwhelmingly home-based squad.
Goalkeeper Song Bum-keun is firmly entrenched as first choice shot-stopper for K League champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, while Lee Dong-gyeong was Asia’s top scorer in Thailand 2020 qualifying, with the Ulsan Hyundai midfielder scoring six times in three matches as Korea Republic topped a group including Australia last March.
Qualification method: Group J winners
2018 performance: Group stage
Best finish: Group stage (2013, 2016, 2018)
It took an 84th-minute Jiang Shenglong equaliser against Malaysia for China PR - then under the tutelage of coaching luminary Guus Hiddink - to seal qualification for Thailand 2020, but despite their difficult journey, millions of fans will be hoping Tokyo will be the final destination.
With Hao Wei now at the helm, an entirely domestic-based squad is tasked with becoming the first Chinese side to navigate the AFC U23 Championship group stage after three consecutive failed attempts, with the January 9 clash against Korea Republic serving as a crucial early test of their credentials.
Beijing Guoan forward Zhang Yuning (pictured above, No.9) looms as the ace in Hao’s hand.
The 23-year-old’s 2019 campaign produced eight goals and five assists in his first season back on home soil after a four-year stint in Europe, while Guangzhou Evergrande’s Yang Liyu set up more goals than any other player in the Chinese Super League last year.
ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN
Qualification method: Group C runners-up
2018 performance: Did not qualify
Best finish: Quarter-finals (2016)
It has been 44 long years since they appeared in an Olympic Games football tournament, but a squad packed with seasoned professionals suggest Islamic Republic of Iran’s future appears a much more interesting story than their past.
While they are sure to be tested in one of the tournament’s most difficult groups, Hamid Estili’s charges appear more than capable of providing goals.
Winger Mohammed Mohebbi scored two of them for the senior national team against Cambodia last October, Mehdi Gaedi arrives in Thailand after scoring eight in the first half of the season for Esteghlal, and Reza Shekari found the net three times at the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup.
Also present is 18-year-old wonderkid Allahyar Sayyadmanesh, who became Iran’s youngest ever senior international goal scorer last June, finding the net against Syria just a month after being snapped by Turkish giants Fenerbahce.