2020 AFC U23 Championship: Saudi Arabia progress to final as Uzbekistan pay for profligacy

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

Saudi Arabia are through to the final of the 2020 AFC U23 Championship – and have qualified for the 2020 Olympic Games in the process – after a smash-and-grab 1-0 win over Uzbekistan on Wednesday.

In a keenly-contested semi-final at the Rajamangala Stadium, it was the Uzbeks who created the better opportunities but were wasteful in front of goal, and were ultimately punished for their profligacy as Abdullah Al-Hamdan scored with three minutes remaining to win it for Saudi Arabia.

The result means that the Saudi Arabians are the first team through to Sunday’s final while Uzbekistan have failed in their quest to retain the title they won back in 2018, although they can still seal their own berth at the Olympics by winning Saturday’s third-place playoff against either Australia or Korea Republic.

AFC U23 Championship Highlights – Saudi Arabia vs Uzbekistan

Yet, the Uzbeks only have themselves to blame after missing a host of gilt-edged opportunities that should have seen them at least reach the final for a second tournament running.

Their first real chance came after 12 minutes when an inventive over-the-top ball from Sanjar Kodirkulov released Bobir Abdixolikov, who sent a lob over the onrushing Mohammed Al-Yami but just could not guide it on target.

Five minutes later, Abdixolikov seemed destined to break the deadlock when he pounced on a poor backpass by Saud Abdulhamid and charged down Al-Yami’s desperate attempt to clear the danger.

But with the goal gaping and the ball just a bit ahead of him, the Uzbekistan striker contrived to send the ball trickling wide of the near post.

Abdixolikov somehow failed to score with an unguarded goal to aim for.

Abdixolikov was causing all sorts of problems for the Saudi Arabia defence but his finishing continued to let him down nine minutes into the second half.

Jasurbek Yakhshiboev curled a lovely ball in from the right and Abdixolikov took it down on his chest brilliantly before doing well to hold off the advances of Hassan Tombakti, only to send his shot straight at Al-Yami.

Having absorbed all that pressure, the stage was set for Saudi Arabia to snatch the win and they duly found the breakthrough with three minutes remaining – in fortuitous fashion no less.

A poor headed clearance by Khojiakbar Alijonov saw him send the ball right to the edge of his own area, where it was pounced on by Nasser Al-Omran.

The Saudi Arabia midfielder unleashed a speculative effort that Uzbekistan goalkeeper Abduvakhid Nematov looked to have covered only for the shot to take a crucial deflection of Al-Hamdan, who knew little about his intervention which ultimately proved crucial as the ball nestled into the back of the net.

In one final desperate bid to find an equaliser, Uzbekistan send Nematov up forward in the dying stages of the game and Saudi Arabia thought they had a second after hitting on the counter with Abdulrahman Ghareeb sending a looping shot into the unguarded goal, although the strike was correctly ruled out for offside.

Nonetheless, for the second game running after their 1-0 win over Thailand in the quarter-finals, Saudi Arabia did enough to ride their luck and keep alive their hopes of winning the AFC U23 Championship, safe in the knowledge that they at least already have the consolation of a place at the Olympic Games later this year.

SAUDI ARABIA: Mohammed Al-Yami, Saud Abdulhamid, Hassan Tombakti, Abdulbassit Hindi, Khaled Dubaish, Mukhtar Ali, Ali Al-Hassan (Nasser Al-Omran 80’), Ayman Al-Khulaif (Hussain Al-Eisa 68’), Sami Al-Najei (Khalid Al-Ghannam 84’), Abdulrahman Ghareeb, Abdullah Al-Hamdan.

UZBEKISTAN: Abduvakhid Nematov, Khojiakbar Alijonov, Islomjon Kobilov, Khusniddin Alikulov, Ilkhomjon Alianov, Azizjon Ganiev, Abdulla Abdullaev, Jasurbek Yakhshiboev, Oybek Bozorov (Nurillo Tukhtasinov 74’), Sanjar Kodirkulov (Sharof Mukhitdinov 89′), Bobir Abdixolikov (Islom Kenjabaev 68’).