‘Two more boxes to tick’: Arnold’s U-23’s eyeing AFC Championship glory

Graham Arnold says his Australian U-23 side have achieved nothing yet, with qualification for this year’s Olympic Games are mere by-product of the overall goal of becoming Asian champions.

The young Aussies take on Korea Republic in the semi final of the AFC U-23 Championship on Thursday morning (AEDT) knowing victory will book their spot at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

But a win over Korea will also send Australia through to the final, giving the green and gold the chance to lift the prestigious trophy for the very first time at this age level.

While many Aussie fans will be delighted if Arnold’s side finish in the top three and punch their ticket to the Olympics, the squad have their eyes on the ultimate prize.

“We’ve ticked two boxes so far and there’s four to be ticked,” Arnold told reporters on Monday.

“The first box we needed to tick was to top the group, the second one was to get through the quarter final, the third is to win the semi-final.

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“Our focus is on winning that trophy of the U-23 Asian Cup, it hasn’t been done before and it’s something that’s quite special for Australia.

“All we’re doing is talking about that at the moment and building the players belief and confidence and making sure they are fresh and ready to go.”

Australia booked their spot in the last four after overcoming Syria 1-0 after extra-time on Sunday morning (AEDT).

While Arnold’s troops had to play 120 minutes in gruelling conditions, they head into the semi final with an extra day’s rest than their opponents.

 “The boys have recovered very well. When you have great energy and great focus, those types of things [playing extra-time] don’t affect you,” Arnold said.

“We’ve shown the other teams and ourselves we can play 120 minutes and play well. I only see that as a positive.”

Adelaide United striker Al Hassan Toure was the hero against Syria, coming off the bench to score the winner in the first half of extra-time.

Toure surged behind the Syrian defence to connect with Aidan O’Neill’s defence-splitting pass and added a clinical finish to send Australia through.

WATCH: Toure with the decisive goal in extra-time

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His decisive contribution continued a strong tournament from Toure, who has impressed Arnold with his maturity and finishing.

You have to remember he is very young even for this age group, he’s one of the younger boys along with [Jacob] Italiano and [Ramy] Najjarine,” the Australian U-23 boss said.

“I couldn’t be happier with the way he’s progressing. There’s a lot of areas the kid has to work on but his talent is special.

“Where he can end up with a lot of hard work can also be special.

“He’s impressed me with his finishing to be honest. From the outside you potentially don’t see that his finishing is so lethal but when you see him at training and he’s doing shooting drills, his finishing with both feet is excellent.”

While they are a formidable opponent, Korea Republic are also well-known to Australia’s U-23 squad, with the two nations meeting twice in the last 10 months.

Australian players celebrate Toure's winning goal
Australian players celebrate Toure's winning goal

The first of those was a 2-2 draw in Cambodia last March, while they also met just prior to this tournament in a friendly in Malaysia which finished 1-1.

“We know what they are about and for me it’s all about us and preparing ourselves right, making sure our recovery is right and making sure we get the right players on the field,” Arnold said.

“If we do that I expect a great performance.

“Once we get on the pitch we’ll be ready. The boys have built a great belief, they are feeling great and it doesn’t matter who we play we go out on the pitch expecting to win the game.”

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Coach Graham Arnold issues instructions during the win over Syria
Coach Graham Arnold issues instructions during the win over Syria

Australia U-23 Men’s National Team – Upcoming Fixture

Australia U-23 v Korea Republic U-23 – AFC U-23 Championship Thailand 2020 Semi Final
Date: 
Wednesday, 22 January 2020
Venue: Thammasat Stadium, Bangkok, Thailand  
Kick-off: 8.15pm (local); 12.15pm +1 (AEDT)
Stream/Broadcast (Australia Only): Fox Sports, Kayo Sports, My Football YouTube Channel