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2019 AFC Asian Cup preview: The contenders

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Expert
5th January, 2019
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Ask five different people who will the Asian Cup, which got underway late last night, and you’ll likely get five different answers.

Such is the landscape in Asia at the moment that any of the top five or six nations would realistically fancy their chances of holding aloft the shiny new trophy come February 1.

So just who are the main challengers for the title? In the final part of our three-part series looking at all 24 teams, we take a look at those who are serious contenders for the title.

Australia
As the defending champions, Australia travel to the UAE with a big target on their back. It’s their title to give up, but they’ll certainly fancy their chances of joining South Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Japan as the only nations to successfully defend their title.

To do it they’ll have to overcome a number of obstacles, most notably the absence of Aaron Mooy and, almost certainly, Mathew Leckie. The injured duo leave big holes in Graham Arnold’s side, especially Leckie given the sparsity of genuine goalscoring options up front for the Socceroos, which were made even scarcer when Martin Boyle was ruled out.

Expect Awer Mabil to feature even more prominently in the absence of Leckie, while with Mooy on the sidelines now is the time for Massimo Luongo and Jackson Irvine to really step up and cement their place in this side.

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And in Mat Ryan, they have the best goalkeeper at the tournament, and as we witnessed with his outstanding save against South Korea, he will be a hard man to get past.

The trouble, as it has been for a while now, isn’t necessarily keeping the ball out, it’s putting it in the back of the net. That is the biggest problem for Graham Arnold to solve over the next month. If he can, then Australia will be one of the teams to beat. If he can’t, then the Socceroos may just find they relinquish their crown as the kings of Asia.

Awer Mabil of Australia looks on

Awer Mabil will have a prominent role to play for the Socceroos. (Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images)

Japan
You’re probably thinking ‘yeah, yeah we know Japan, we know what they offer’, and in a sense we do. But this is a vastly different Japanese side to any that we’ve encountered over the last few years.

For starters, there is no Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa or Shinji Okazaki, the trio that have come to symbolise the Samurai Blue of the last decade.

In their place are a new breed of attacking talent intent on making their own mark: Shoya Nakajima, who has been linked to a big money move from his club in Portugal to the Premier League; Ritsu Doan, the MVP of the 2016 AFC U19 Championships and the AFC Young Player of the Year in the same year; and Takumi Minamino, with four goals in six games for Red Bull Salzburg in the Europa League.

Between them they’ve scored or had a hand in eight of Japan’s 15 goals since the World Cup. When you throw in the experience of Maya Yoshida, Yuto Nagatomo, Tomoaki Makino, Genki Haraguchi and Yuya Osako, then Japan has an exciting blend of youth and experience that should hold them in good stead, not just for the Asian Cup but looking ahead to Qatar 2022 as well.

South Korea
We got a taste of what to expect from the Paulo Bento-led South Koreans when they visited Brisbane last month and gave the Socceroos a run for their money with what was a weakened side.

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Attention, as it always does, will focus on Son Heung-min, who will miss the group stage after an agreement was reached between the KFA and Tottenham to allow the star to play for Korea at the Asian Games and earn a military exemption.

So the Koreans will have to find a way to make do without Son against China, Kyrgyz Republic and the Philippines. Sadly, they’ve again been hit by injury that will see some of their most exciting players watch from the sidelines.

Nam Tae-hee, who had come back into favour under Bento, will be sidelined for 12 months after injuring his ACL in their friendly against Uzbekistan in Brisbane last month, while Kwon Chang-hoon, who injured his Achilles on the eve of the World Cup, only returned for Dijon just days before final squads were due to be named and couldn’t be risked after a six-month lay off.

Pleasingly, Hwang Hee-chan looks to have overcome his injury concerns and will be fit to travel. But we saw enough from Gamba Osaka star Hwang Ui-jo against Australia in November to know that they have depth in attack, especially when you had in the European-based players such as Lee Jae-sung, Koo Ja-cheol and the experienced Lee Chung-yong.

Iran
A lot is expected of Iran at this Asian Cup. Considered by many to be the best team in Asia over the last World Cup cycle, they’ll never be better placed than now to go all the way and end their long trophy drought – a drought that extends all the way back to 1976.

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Team Melli were the hard luck story from the World Cup in Russia, pushing Portugal all the way in the deciding match and almost stealing it right at the death. They won fans the world over for their fighting spirit and never-say-die attitude, fostered by Carlos Queiroz.

The question for Queiroz and whether that same style, that conservative – some would say dour – approach, is the right one against Asian opposition, where they are expected to be more on the front foot against the likes of Yemen and Vietnam.

We saw at the World Cup when they had to attack, they did so in style and with purpose. An attack containing Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Sardar Azmoun and Mehdi Taremi, to name just a few, will put the frighteners through any team, especially if they are given license to attack.

Alireza Jahanbakhsh drives the ball against China.

Alireza Jahanbakhsh. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia
The damage was done for the Green Falcons in their opening game of the World Cup against hosts Russia. But while the rest of the world already had their papers stamped ‘F’, they slowly set about restoring some pride with better performances against Uruguay and Egypt, earning a last-minute win against the African side.

They made headlines before the World Cup with their plan to send players to Spain, a plan that backfired, but since then they’ve almost flown under the radar so quiet have things been, as Juan Antonio Pizzi sets about creating a team capable of matching it with the best in Asia.

Going in the Saudis’ favour is the fact this will be close enough to a home tournament, with reports that all tickets to their three group games have already been sold, with a vocal and passionate support to follow their every move.

We saw in the last round of World Cup qualifying that they’re a team that enjoys home comforts, with 13 of their 19 points being earned at home.

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Recently we saw their U19 squad win the AFC U19 Championships, and the standout player from that side, Turki Al-Ammar, had been expected to feature in Pizzi’s plans for this tournament, but when push came to shove the Argentine shocked most pundits by leaving the young star out of his final squad along with in-form striker Haroune Camara.

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Qatar
This Qatar team has been built for success, with most of the squad having come through the respective age groups together, from U19 to U23 and now the senior team, and guiding them all the way has been Spaniard Felix Sanchez.

Their recent win over Switzerland made headlines around the world as a late goal from Akram Afif sealed the historic win, and it is Afif that will be the poster boy for this generation.

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One of the most naturally talented players to emerge in Asia in recent years, the 22-year-old has the world at his feet and if he’s ever going to make an impact in Asia, then now is the time to do it.

Another player to watch is striker Almoez Ali, the top scorer at the AFC U23 Championships earlier in the year. The 22-year-old has taken that goalscoring form into the senior team, with four goals in three matches against China, Palestine and Ecuador in September and October.

There is still a lot of cynicism, and misinformation, when it comes to Qatar, but this side of mostly home-grown talent can go a long way to silencing the critics in the UAE.