U23 Blue Wolves Can't Break Through
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Despite hosting its group and holding home-field advantage in front of solid turnouts for the team's three matches, the U23 national team finished last in Group J and failed to qualify for the 2022 AFC U-23 Asian Cup. Despite the lack of results, there are reasons for optimism from the individual matches.
Mongolia suffered a major tactical and morale hit before the first kick of the ball. Head coach Suichi Mase was flown back to Japan because of a medical emergency involving his eye. Despite Mase's video conferencing with staff and players, it was ultimately the ever-present Zorigtyn Battulga at the helm for the tournament.
Mongolia opened its qualifying campaign against Thailand, the highest ranked team in the group. After taking an early lead through an 11th-minute strike from Jakkit Palapon, Thailand held the lead for most of the game. However, Mongolia did not give up and drew level from a Baljinnyam Batbold goal in the 76th minute. The tally from Batbold, who has also already scored three goals for the senior team, was ultimately enough to earn the draw.
Despite the hope gained by earning a point against the group's top side, it would ultimately be Mongolia's only point in qualifying.
Although Mongolia lost its second match 0-1, it was a very respectable result against Malaysia, a nation with approximately ten times the population of Mongolia. Malaysia's only goal came from Azfar Fikri a few minutes before halftime.
In the team's final match Mongolia exchanged own-goals with Laos in the ultimate 2-3 defeat to the ASEAN side. An Oyunbold Oyuntuya goal in the 23rd-minute gave the team its only lead in the tournament. However, senior Laos international Bounphachan Bounkong, who also scored against Mongolia in a 2018 friendly, converted a penalty before ultimately scoring the game-winner from open play in the 74th minute.
Despite suffering two losses and a draw, Mongolia finished the three-match campaign with a point and only a -2 goal differential. Last time out in qualifying for the 2020 edition of the tournament, the young Blue Wolves suffered three straight defeats, earned zero points, and finished with a -4 goal differential.
Mongolian fans should be proud and encouraged by the progress.