Opinion

For Olyroos, the road to Tokyo 2020 is a tough one

Socceroos and Olyroos coach Graham Arnold looks on before a match Source: Getty Images

The New Year starts with a bang on Wednesday as the Olyroos play Iraq in their first game of the AFC U-23 Championship.

Then comes a game with hosts Thailand in Bangkok and a final Group A showdown with Bahrain.

Finishing in the top two means a place in the last eight and finishing in the top three means a place in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. 

Secure that spot in Japan and the tournament will be a major success for Australia, though winning the trophy would obviously be a huge deal. 

It won’t, obviously so given the fact that Australia missed out on the last two Olympics, be easy.

The group is a tough one and that is before a possible quarter-final match up with either Japan, Saudi Arabia, Syria or Qatar. 

Here, The World Game takes a look at what lies ahead.

Iraq

First opponents Iraq have won every opening game in the history of this tournament and won the inaugural competition back in 2013. 

This is a team led by Abdul-Ghani Shahad, an experienced coach who qualified for the 2016 Olympics through the U-23 Championship.

The 51 year-old showed his pragmatic side at the tournament, holding Denmark and - impressively - hosts Brazil to draws with some fine defensive displays but the planned win in the final game against South Africa, which would have sent Iraq to the knockout stage, did not happen.

The Asian team left South America unbeaten however.

He was in charge again in 2018 when Iraq won all three games and lost in the quarter-finals to Vietnam on penalties.

In short, this is a man who knows how to get out of the group in this competition.

Iraq will look to senior internationals Najm Shwan, Mohammed Ridha and Mustafa Mohammed, who also played in the 2019 AFC Champions League with Al-Zawra'a, to lead the team and hope that striker Murad Mohammed Subeh can continue his goalscoring exploits from the qualification tournament.

The warm-up loss to Uzbekistan in December did not tell the full story of a decent attacking performance but there was plenty of space at times behind the backline.

If Iraq can tighten the defence then they will be a contender once again.

Thailand

Being placed in a group with the hosts is often not to be welcomed and Australia should be wary of Thailand.

Underestimating these young War Elephants will be costly.

First, there is the talent.

Forward Supachai Jaided is regarded as one of the best young attacking talents in Asia as he demonstrated in the qualification tournament.

With four senior international goals and plenty of experience for Buriram United, Southeast Asia’s top club, under his belt, the 21-year-old could be a star of the tournament.

There is more where he came from too such as Supachok Sarachat and teenage sensation Suphanat Mueanta.

Then there is coach Akira Nishino.

Familiar to Aussie fans as the man whose Gamba Osaka team swept aside Adelaide United in the 2008 Asian Champions League final, and supporters elsewhere for leading Japan to within minutes of a place in the quarter-finals of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Nishino is a wily and experienced campaigner.

And don’t forget home advantage. This not only means big and passionate support during games but preparations that would make Graham Arnold weep.

There has been training camp after training camp and while the pressure could start to mount should things start to go awry, if Thailand can get a good start then the momentum generated could really be something.

Bahrain

Expected to finish fourth, the Reds will at least be able to make things difficult for the favoured three and perhaps even more than that. 

Bahrain are full of experience with no less than six players from the senior national team, one of the most improved on the continent.

2019 was a great year for Bahrain, with titles won at the West Asian Championships in August and the more prestigious Gulf Cup in December.

There was also a good start to qualification for the 2022 World Cup.

Led by Samir Chammam, a Tunisian tactician who has been working in the country for a number of years, the target is a place in the Olympics.

For a well-organised and hard-working team that is hard to break down, it is unlikely but not impossible.

For Australia, taking on the men from Manama in the final game may not be the easy three points that some think especially if Mohamed Al Harden continues his goalscoring form.

Get through all that and the fun really starts.