The Socceroos won the biggest title in their history at the last Asian Cup in 2015, where they edged South Korea after extra time to win a thrilling final in Sydney. It provided further vindication for their switch from Oceania to the Asian confederation in 2006, since then they have never failed to qualify for the World Cup. However, Australia’s star has dimmed in recent times, and after reaching Russia 2018 via the play-offs they exited without a win after scoring only twice in their three group games. New coach Graham Arnold must fill the void left by retired record scorer Tim Cahill, and get the goals flowing again, if the Socceroos are to keep the trophy in Australian hands.
Japan go into the Asian Cup chasing a record-extending fifth title and in a rich vein of form. The Blue Samurai are unbeaten in five games since Hajime Moriyasu replaced Akira Nishino as coach after their surprise run to the knockout stages of last year’s World Cup. But Japan embark on their Middle Eastern adventure without two players who epitomise their waspish energy — Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki. Both were omitted by Moriyasu, who looks to Red Bull Salzburg’s Takumi Minamino to provide the creative spark in Kagawa’s absence. Portimonense’s Shoya Nakajima and Groningen’s Ritsu Doan will add thrust as they try to avenge their 2015 Asian Cup flop when they crashed out in the quarterfinals. Southampton defender Maya Yoshida and Galatasaray full-back Yuto Nagatomo bring experience to Japan, who face Uzbekistan, Oman and Turkmenistan in Group F. Ranked 50th in the world, behind Iran (29) and Australia (41), anything less than the semifinals would be seen as failure for Japan.
In Tottenham Hotspur flier Son Heung-min, South Korea boast Asia’s most exciting player and they will be regarded as narrow favourites to hoist the trophy on February 1. The Taeguk Warriors showed their quality when they stunned holders Germany at last year’s World Cup and they came within a whisker of winning their third Asian title in 2015, going down to James Troisi’s extra-time strike for hosts Australia in the final. Son will miss South Korea’s first two games, against the Philippines and Kyrgyzstan, owing to club commitments with Spurs. But with a wealth of talent including Newcastle’s Ki Sung-yueng and goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo, man of the match in the 2-0 win over Germany, South Korea should have at least one foot in the knock-out stages by then. — AFP
Asia’s top-ranked team won credit at last year’s World Cup, where they were edged 1-0 by Spain and finished 1-1 against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, before exiting at the group stage. However, they will want to go home with more than just praise at the Asian Cup, a tournament where success has eluded them since their run of three straight titles ended in 1976. Ex-Real Madrid coach Carlos Queiroz, also a former assistant to Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, has forged a formidable unit which was unbeaten in World Cup qualifying, strolling into the Asian Cup along the way. Last time around, Iran went out on penalties to arch-rivals Iraq in a pulsating quarterfinal which featured four goals in extra-time and a contentious second yellow card for simulation to Iranian defender Mehrdad Pooladi. Similar fireworks can be expected when the two teams meet for their final Group D game on January 16.
The former giants of Asian football need to reverse a poor run of form as they look to return to the winners’ circle for the first time since the 1990s. Victories in 1984, 1988 and 1996 made the Saudis the continent’s premier side but despite reaching the 2000 and 2007 finals they have been unable to add to their tally. There wasn’t much to shout about at last year’s World Cup, when Saudi Arabia lost 5-0 to Russia in their opening game and never recovered. In the UAE, a short hop over the Saudi border, Juan Antonio Pizzi — the fourth coach in the Saudi hotseat since the 2015 Asian Cup — can expect an easier ride than in Russia as they open against North Korea on Tuesday. However, Saudi Arabia flopped at the last Asian Cup, going out at the group stage, and they are under pressure heading into this edition after winning only one of their six games since the World Cup.