Malaysia to face Iraq, Saudi Arabia in AFC U23 Championship in China

Malaysia will face three sides from West Asia in what appears a tough draw for the AFC under-23 Championship group stage in China in January.

In Group C, the Harimau Malaya go up against Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, three countries who have shown some impressive form in the two editions of the tournament to date.

Iraq were inaugural winners in 2014 and finished third in 2016. Saudi Arabia lost to the Iraqis in the 2014 final. Jordan were beaten by the Saudis in the 2014 semifinal, and eventually finished third.

While Malaysia will have to overcome the top three sides from the 2014 championship, only Iraq had a similarly strong showing in Qatar in 2016. Jordan fell in the quarterfinals after winning just one game in the group stage, while the Saudis failed to make it out of the group.

The AFC U23 Championship represents an excellent opportunity for Ong Kim Swee's side to give Malaysian football a lift, with the senior side having failed to win a game in 2017 under new coach Nelo Vingada.

But the 2017 Southeast Asia (SEA) Games silver medalists will have their work cut out against three teams who will provide a stern test, kicking off against Iraq.

Southeast Asian rivals Thailand will face some familiar foes in Group B, having played two of the teams at the same stage in 2016. The Thais again go head-to-head with holders Japan, who beat them 4-0 two years ago, and North Korea. Palestine, making their first appearance in the competition, are the fourth side in the group.

The War Elephants drew with both Saudi Arabia and North Korea in 2016, exiting the tournament on goal difference at the first hurdle.

In Group D, Australia will do battle with Syria once again, having met at senior level in the recent AFC World Cup qualification playoff. They are also up against 2016 runners up South Korea, while there will be Southeast Asian opponents in Vietnam.

The Aussies beat the Vietnamese 2-0 at the same stage in 2016, but neither side made it out of the group and into the quarterfinals.

The tournament kicks off on Jan. 9, with the final scheduled for Jan. 27 in Changzhou.