Preview: Palestine U23 vs. Japan U23 (2018 AFC Championship)

Japan were convincing winners in Incheon the last time they faced Palestine.

Game Information

What: 2018 U23 AFC Championship (Group Stage)
When: January 10th, 2018
Where: Jiangyin Stadium, Jiangyin, China 
Kickoff: 1:30 PM Jerusalem Time
Streams/TV: Streamed Live on our Facebook Channel. 

Previous Encounters: 
25.09.2014 Palestine 0:4 Japan (2014 Asian Games)

Palestine: Lost 0-1 Oman, Draw 1-1 Oman, Won 3-2 Qatar, Draw 1-1 Vietnam
Japan: Lost 1-2 Thailand, Won 4-0 Korea DPR, Draw 2-2 Uzbekistan

Measuring Stick 

Palestine’s Olympic team faces the giants of Asia and current holders of the U23 title almost three years to the day after Palestine made their maiden bow at the 2015 Asian Cup (January 12th, 2015) against Japan in Newcastle. 
Make no mistake, this game is a measuring stick for how far Palestine has come in the timespan. Qualifying for the Asian Cup in 2015 was a watershed moment in Palestine’s sporting history and an accomplishment few expected. If anything, the PFA expected themselves to be rid of the ever-demanding Jamal Mahmoud following the AFC Challenge Cup. To everyone’s surprise, Palestine, who had played the fewest official friendlies (0) before the tournament lifted the title thanks to Mahmoud’s tactical nous and Ashraf Nu’man’s heroics. 
Eight months later with Mahmoud out of the picture Palestine was badly exposed in front of the entire continent. A vastly superior Japan side, was gifted an early goal and did not look back storming to a 4-0 victory. 
While it may escape the attention of many, the Olympic team also had the opportunity to lock horns with the Blue Samurai during that time period. Abdel Nasser Barakat’s U23 team scored its first ever goals and registered its first ever wins at an Asian Games in 2014. Their scintillating performances resulted in them topping a group that included the likes of Oman, Tajikistan, and Singapore. That run, however, came to a screeching halt in the Round of 16 with Japan registering yet another 4-0 win. 
How far has Palestine come in that period? Ostensibly, the program has improved at the senior and U23 level but they have yet to make a statement of intent against the big teams in Asia. 
Palestine are not expected to pick up any points against Japan but they will need to show aptitude in dealing with a stronger opponent and avoid a blowout loss. 

Where are they now?

Three and a half years on, members of that U23 team have gone on to make their mark with the senior team. Rami Hamadi took over the position of starting goalkeeper in late 2016, becoming the first goalkeeper in Palestine history to register three clean sheets in his first three starts. The full backs, Jaber and Battat are mainstays at fullback. Ahmad Maher has been reliable contributor at senior level- delivering a man of the match performance to deliver Palestine all three points in Malé at the onset of Asian Cup qualifying. Islam Batran, Ghanem Mahajneh, and Oday Kharoub have all gone on to earn caps with the senior team.  
Japan’s wealth of footballing talent means that of the 20 players that took part in that match in September 2014 only four have won caps with the senior team- Sei Muroya, Wataru Endo, Ryota Oshima, and Naomichi Ueda.
Of the four, only one can really claim to be in the national team picture. Wataru Endo has seven caps to his name and has played during Japan’s 2018 World Cup qualification campaign while the others have a combined three caps in total.
That said, that Japan squad might become known for producing Shoya Nakajima who is bound for big things in the near future. The attacking midfielder went on loan from Tokyo Verdy to Portimonense in the Portuguese top flight earlier this year and has scored seven times in 13 matches. His performances have attracted the attention of Benfica and it’s almost certain he’ll be with a bigger European team come the 2018/19 season.

Focus on the future 

Japan’s approach to youth development has been to keep groups of players together for long periods of time. In fact, it is not strange to see Japanese players collect dozens of caps at youth level (the aforementioned Nakajima has 30 caps at U23 level) due to the long-term planning in place at the JFA. 
For their part, Japan have the youngest squad at the tournament with all 23 players eligible to compete at the 2020 edition and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. 
Palestine- perhaps unintentionally- have tried a similar approach graduating the manager along with some players through the youth categories. Former national team manager Abdel Nasser Barakat coached the U17s and U20s before making the jump to the Olympic and eventually, senior national team. Current Olympic team Manager Ayman Sandouqa coached the U19 and U16 level. 
Palestine also have a glut of players who will be involved in the next cycle. Michel Termanini, Saado Abdelsalam, Mohammed El-Kayed, Mohammed Darwish, Mohammed Obeid, Mahmoud Yousef, Shihab Qinbar, Oday Dabagh, Abdallah Idrees, and Ahmed Qatmish were all born in 1997 or 1998. Meaning over half the outfield players are getting valuable experience in addition to Ahmed Abu Hammam, the side’s thrid string keeper. 

Prematch Comments

Ayman Sandouqa, Palestine Manager: 

“Our first match against Japan is going to be tough, but we will aim for the best result” 

“This is the first time we’re in this tournament. We prepared well and played friendlies against Oman, Qatar and Vietnam…

I agree we look to be in a tough group but we are determined to perform.”

Hajime Moriyasu, Japan Manager: 

“The players are determined to perform and despite most of them being in the off-season, they have responded well in training and I am confident we can shine.”

“The road to the Tokyo Olympics begins with the AFC U23 Championship for us as we want to prepare a strong squad for 2020.”

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