AFC U23 Championship Preview: Olyroos unfazed by Ikonomidis absence

The battle for one of Asia’s three berths at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro kicks off on Tuesday evening, with Australian hopes appearing to suffer a blow following the late withdrawal of Chris Ikonomidis.

The 20-year-old midfielder has not been permitted to join his team by club side Lazio for the 2016 edition of the AFC Under-23 Championship, leaving coach Aurelio Vidmar to call up Western Sydney Wanderers’ Jaushua Sotirio as a last-minute replacement as the Australians seek a place at the Summer Games.

The Olyroos have been drawn in Group D in the biannual youth competition in Qatar alongside Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam. 

The side do not begin their campaign until Thursday, but Vidmar expressed his confidence his youngsters will be in the running to take one of the three Olympic slots as well as the overall title – even without Ikonomidis' services.

“We’re really looking forward to the Olympic qualifiers here in Qatar,” the trainer said upon his team's arrival in Doha.

“We’ve had a great preparation over the last five days in Dubai. Our expectations are extremely high and we want to qualify for Rio 2016 and we’re really looking forward to it.”

The tournament kicks off on Tuesday when Iran face Syria in Group A, with former Geylang United defender Mohammad Khakpour hoping to steer the Iranians to their first Olympic appearance since 1976.

“I promise we’re going to work harder to be successful in this tournament,” said Khakpour, who represented Iran at the 1998 World Cup. “I know our group is a very tough group and you have three teams who have prepared well for this tournament.

“We are ready, our players are working so hard and we are not here to just qualify for the Olympics but to win the tournament and be the champions.”

China take on the Qataris in their opening game in Group A with head coach Fu Bo playing his cards close to his chest as China’s seek to qualify for the Olympics for the first time since hosting the Games in Beijing in 2008.

“The players are ready for the championship,” said Fu. “We think Qatar are a very strong team but we will prepare well for this game and hopefully we can get a good result. For this match we registered 23 players, and any of the 11 picked is our best line-up for sure. 

"Our players do feel some pressure but our coaches will try to relieve that pressure as we get prepared for the game because it’s really important.”

Qatar, however, go into the tournament as one of the favourites; not only because of their status as hosts, but because of a team built around a number of the players who guided the country to the AFC U19 Championship title in 2014, including Belgium-based striker Akram Afif.

“Of course we need to go step-by-step, game-by-game because every game is going to be different,” said Qatar’s Spanish coach Felix Sanchez. “We are going to try to do well in each of them with the final target to be in the Olympic Games.”

Thailand begin their campaign on Wednesday when Kiatasuk Senamuang’s side face Saudi Arabia in a demanding Group B that also features Korea DPR and Japan.

Group C, meanwhile, will see Iraq – who reached the semi-finals of the Olympics in 2000 – take on South Korea, Uzbekistan and Yemen.