Palestine qualifies for 2018 AFC U23 Championship

Palestine celebrate qualifying for China 2018
Palestine took care of business last week to qualify for the AFC U23 Championship for the first time in its history. The competition, in its third edition following its inauguration in 2013 marks the first time Palestine has qualified for a youth tournament. 

The result was clinched following Mahmoud Abu Warda's hat trick in a 3-0 victory over Bangladesh. A corner kick goal in the eighth minute set the stage and Abu Warda's magnificent chip in the 34th minute put the match beyond any reasonable doubt. 

The real work happened over the first two games- after throwing away two valuable points in the opener versus Tajikistan, Al-Fida'i knew that only a win would do against group favorites Jordan. 

The first thirty minutes of the match were nothing short of disastrous and Palestine were relatively lucky to have only conceded twice. A comeback was sparked by Hazem Abuhammad's free kick that ended up in the net despite the fact that the Taraji Wadi Al-Nes man never intended to put it there. 

The second half did not really witness a massive shift in momentum but a brilliant piece of skill from Mahmoud Yousef and some quick thinking from Bahaa Wridat generated the equalizer and the winner. 

Overall, Palestine's performance during the qualification phase can be described as scrappy at best. At halftime of the Jordan match, coach Ayman Sandouqa implored his charges to go out and win for Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa. The message worked, Palestine dug deep and found a way to roll with the punches Jordan was throwing at them. 

Palestine should take heart in qualifying for this tournament. Larger more established nations missed out- Iran who produce talented players at an alarming rate missed out as did UAE. Saudi Arabia nabbed the last ticket on offer only because China unexpectedly beat Japan to win its qualifying group. 

Seeding for the 2018 AFC U23 Championship

The finals in January will be a completely different endeavor. For starters, Palestine will test their mettle against stronger opponents and the draw will most likely not be kind after the AFC decided to rank teams based on previous participations. 

That said, qualifying for this tournament will have huge knock-on effects. For one, WBPL teams will be more inclined to rely on the youngsters that fared so well. That confidence has already manifested itself, with Balata signing defender Ahmad Zreiqi and Mahmoud Yousef signing for Shabab Al-Khaleel. 

More minutes on the pitch will be essential for Palestine's youngsters to be competitive come January. Even if the finals tournament produces no victories, it will at least act as a breeding ground for players expected to make the jump to the senior side (Al-Ashhab, Dabbagh, and Abu Warda have been part of national team camps but have yet to actually play).