Big guns loom large at AFC U-23 Asian Cup with dominant early displays

Japan are one of three teams to have sealed their place in the quarterfinals of the 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup after just two group-stage games, having racked up victories over China and United Arab Emirates. KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images

With three automatic spots at the men's football tournament of the upcoming Olympic Games up for grabs, the usual suspects have come out firing at the AFC U-23 Asian Cup.

Just five days into the tournament being held in Qatar, three teams are already through to the quarterfinals with a game to spare in the group stage.

A fourth are yet to mathematically seal their last-eight berth but look almost certain to advance -- and have arguably been the most impressive so far.

It should come as no surprise that these four outfits are among Asian football's traditional heavyweights.

With triumphs over Indonesia and Jordan in Group A, tournament hosts Qatar were the first to seal their passage to the knockout round on Thursday.

It has not exactly been straightforward with both wins requiring some effort -- including a 114th-minute winner against the Jordanians -- but Qatar's U-23 side are on track to emulating the recent success of the senior team, who are the reigning back-to-back champions of the AFC Asian Cup.

Under the stewardship of experienced Portuguese tactician Ilídio Vale, Qatar have thus far looked a well-drilled outfit boasting the right blend of steady contributors such as Mostafa Meshaal and Jassem Gaber -- who have both been capped at senior level -- and exciting talent like Khalid Ali Sabah and Ahmed Al-Rawi.

The Qataris were joined in the quarterfinals on Friday by both Japan and South Korea, who will now do battle for top spot in Group B after making light work of China and United Arab Emirates.

While names such as Jeong Sang-bin and Eom Ji-sung would be more familiar to the South Korean faithful, their charge at the U-23 Asian Cup has thus far been led by Lee Young-jun -- who looks to have a big career ahead of him.

After coming off the bench to score the only goal of the game in an opening win over UAE, Lee was rewarded with a starting berth against China and duly repaid coach Hwang Sun-hong's faith in him with a brace that inspired a 2-0 victory.

Meanwhile, Japan have not been as reliant on one individual but have shared the load en route to picking up the six points required to guarantee early progress to the next stage.

Japan coach Go Oiwa was able to make seven changes to the XI that took on China when they backed up against UAE just two days later, and still sent out a team that always looked in control of proceedings.

It is also worth noting that Japan's opening win over China saw them play with ten men as early as the 17th minute when defender Ryuya Nishio was sent off, yet they were still largely able to keep their opponents at bay -- even if they did require goalkeeper Leo Kokubo to be at his best.

Then, there is Saudi Arabia, who could mathematically still miss out on qualifying for the quarterfinals from Group C, although that seems highly improbable after dominant 4-2 and 5-0 triumphs over Tajikistan and Thailand.

The Green Falcons' exhilarating displays have unsurprisingly been fuelled by names such as Ayman Yahya, Haitham Asiri and Abdullah Radif, who all have featured at senior level and with the former two having gained plenty of valuable experience at Saudi Pro League giants Al Nassr and Al Ahli respectively.

Even before the start of the U-23 Asian Cup, these four powerhouses would have been expected to challenge for the Olympic berths -- and they have thus far lived up to the hype.

There is plenty still to be played out and anything can happen come the knockout round.

Still, given the dominant form they have shown right from the off, Qatar, South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia will all be confident in their prospects of reaching the last four and giving themselves an excellent chance of booking a ticket to Paris later this year.