AFC U-16 semis: Japan v Iraq; Iran v DPR Korea

The teams will take the field on Thursday knowing fully well that they have qualified for next year’s U-17 World Cup by virtue of being the top-four in the competition. However, don’t expect them to put up a below-par performance.

Japan, which has scored a whopping 22 goals without reply in the tournament, is one of the favourites to win the title.   -  Special Arrangement

The AFC Under-16 Championship has entered the business end. In the semifinals, Japan, one of the favourites in the tournament, takes on Iraq while defending champion DPR Korea face Iran.

The four teams will take the field on Thursday knowing fully well that they have qualified for next year’s U-17 World Cup by virtue of being the top-four in the competition. However, don’t expect the teams to put up a below-par performance.

Japan has been ruthless in its campaign, scoring a whopping 22 goals without conceding any in the four games so far. And unsurprisingly, the top two scorers are from Yoshiro Moriyama’s side — Tanahashi Akito and Kubo Takefusa with four goals each. However, the Japanese coach isn’t taking Iraq lightly. Ahead of the clash at the DMC Stadium, Moriyama lavished praise on his opponent, saying the team is “one of the best of the generation”.

“Iraq was the winner of the AFC U-14 Championship two years ago. So they are definitely one of the best teams of this generation,” Moriyama said. “I saw their quarterfinal against Uzbekistan and thought that they are a really good team. Individually they are skilled, and also play well as a group. It will be a tough match, but I believe that the key point for the coming match will be how to stop their robust offence.”

Japan, which comfortably topped Group B, is appearing in the semifinal for the first time since 2012, having previously won the AFC U-16 Championship in 1994 and 2006.

“Of course we want to win the tournament, and I believe that we have a chance. However, we want to think one game at a time, so all of our focus right now is on winning the next game,” the Japanese coach said.

Meanwhile, Iraq is expected to go full throttle against Japan. The team seems determined to make amends for its failure to qualify for the AFC youth tournament two years ago. Coach Qahtan Chitheer is optimistic of his side’s chances. “Japan is a good team with exceptional players and it’s obvious they play a high level of football,” he said. “But I believe we have a good chance in this game and we will look to implement an effective strategy and tactics to combat them. We are very proud to represent Arab football, as we are the last remaining Arab country in this competition, so we will try very hard to reach the final.”

DPR Korea and Iran exude confidence

In the second semifinal, DPR Korea will have to contend with a buoyant Iran fresh from a 5-0 hammering of Vietnam in the quarterfinals.

DPR Korea just about made it to the last four, courtesy a tiring 4-2 penalty shootout win against Oman, but will look to be the first team to successfully defend its title, which would mean an unprecedented third AFC U-16 Championship.

“We have played four tough matches and physically we’re tired, so we must try and fully recover. We have to assess our quarterfinal performance and again look to improve for the next match,” said the DPR Korea coach, Yun jong-su.

Iran, on the back of a comfortable quarterfinal victory over Vietnam, will look to add to its only title in 2008.

“Our task isn’t finished yet because we haven’t reached our final goal; the matches so far were just steps towards that,” said coach Abbas Chamanian, who will be unable to call on suspended midfielder Vahid Namdari. “My players all want to get to the final and I expect them to play without pressure and stress and to be better than they were against Vietnam.”