The journey so far: Australia’s U-23s eyeing AFC glory and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics

Australia’s U-23 squad will begin their date with destiny next month as they aim to win the AFC U-23 Championship and snap a 12-year Olympic Games drought in the process.

Graham Arnold’s side will compete at the AFC U-23 Championship in Thailand from January 8-26, looking to be crowned Asian’s best nation at U-23 level.

But the tournament also doubles as qualifiers for next year’s Olympic Games and the side need to finish in the top three to punch their ticket to Tokyo 2020.

While Australia’s fate will be sealed in the space of just under three weeks next month, it’s a journey that began earlier this year in the qualifying tournament just to reach the AFC U-23 Championship.

That tournament was held in Cambodia where Arnold’s troops were pitted against Cambodia, Chinese Taipei and Korea Republic.

ANNOUNCEMENT: Graham Arnold reveals U-23 squad bound for Bangkok
ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW: Ultimate guide to the 2020 AFC U-23 Championship

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After back-to-back 6-0 wins over Cambodia and Chinese Taipei, the Aussies headed into their third match in five days knowing a draw would be enough to qualify.

An early double from Nick D’Agostino sent Australia on their way and while Korea Republic fought back to level the scores, a draw was enough to book Australia’s spot at the AFC U-23 Championship in Thailand.

Nick D'Agostino is one of 24 players selected for Gary van Egmond's Australia U-23 side to take on New Zealand
Nick D'Agostino was the hero against Korea Republic

The squad have ramped up preparations for January’s tournament in recent months.

It started in September with a two-game friendly series on home soil against New Zealand’s U-23 squad, who have already qualified for the Olympic Games.

Both matches – played in Wollongong and Campbelltown – were ideal preparation and ended in entertaining 1-1 draws, with Adelaide United attacker Riley McGree and Melbourne City's Lachlan Wales getting Australia’s goals.

Gary van Egmond then oversaw a training camp in Qatar in October, which featured a majority of overseas-based players and a handful from the Hyundai A-League.

As well as undertaking some crucial training sessions during the October FIFA window, the squad also played two matches.

The first was a training match against Qatari Second Division side Lusail Club, which Australia won 2-0, while the second against IR Iran’s U-23 side ended in a 2-1 defeat.

And just last month, Australia took part in the four-nation Dazu Cup in China.

The Aussies won all three matches, starting with a 5-1 triumph over China, followed by a 4-0 victory over DPR Korea before ending with a 1-0 success against Lithuania to win the competition.

Melbourne City’s Ramy Najjarine, who scored the winner against Lithuania, was named Player of the Tournament.

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Australia's U23 win the Dazu Cup in China
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Australia U-23 Match Schedule|2020 AFC U-23 Championship Group A

Iraq v Australia
Date: Wednesday, 8 January 2020
Venue: Thammasat Stadium, Rangsit
Kick-off: 5:15pm local, 9.15pm AEDT

Australia v Thailand
Date: Saturday, 11 January 2020
Venue: Rajamangala Stadium, Bangkok
Kick-off: 8:15pm local, 12.15am Sunday, 12 January AEDT

Australia v Bahrain
Date: Tuesday, 14 January 2020
Venue: Thammasat Stadium, Rangsit
Kick-off: 8.15pm local, 12.15am Wednesday, 15 January AEDT

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