Some pretty obvious nominations for the contenders of the title, but the tournament has a huge chance of having an unusual winner this time around.
As the new year begins, all eyes will be on the AFC Asian Cup which is set to kick-off from the 5th of January in the UAE. While the continent is constantly showing development in terms of football, lots of brilliant players from various countries are coming into the limelight of late.
Many players, especially from the developing nations have attracted attention with their outstanding skills and some of them have even single-handedly taken their respective countries to glory.
Thus, even though countries like these have much to prove against their dominant counterparts within the continent, one cannot completely rule out the possibility of upsets they can cause. Sp, let’s have a look at some of the contenders for the title-
5. Saudi Arabia
Watch: The Green Falcons have shown a lot of improvement over the months and have plenty of quality players in their ranks
Even after being mauled by hosts Russia in the opening game of the 2018 FIFA World Cup and facing a narrow defeat at the hands of Uruguay, Saudi Arabia managed to finish third in their group, as they registered a surprise 2-1 win against Egypt in their final game.
Under Juan Pizzi, the Green Falcons managed to finish second in their World Cup qualifying campaign ahead of Australia, which reflects their calibre. Also, since returning with a single win from Russia last year, the three-time Asian Cup winners have shown a lot of improvement. Barring a single loss to Brazil in October, the Green Falcons are undefeated in the rest of the five friendlies they have played, including a recent goalless draw against South Korea.
Fahad Al-Muwallad, the 24-year-old Al-Ittihad forward will be in the spotlight for Saudi Arabia in the absence of the veteran Mohammad Al-Sahlawi. Apart from him, there are several other quality players in the squad.
Watch: The Iranians are serious contenders with some elite Asian players like Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Sardar Azmoun
Matching Saudi Arabia’s record of three Asian Cup titles, Iran too, pose as one of the contenders for the title this year. Under Carlos Queiroz, the team played brilliantly at the World Cup, despite being drawn in a difficult group with Spain and Portugal.
Team Melli, missed out qualification for the knockout round by just one point, as they managed to hold Portugal to a 1-1 draw after brushing past Morocco, a relatively easy opponent.
What makes Iran a deadly opponent in the Asian Cup, is that they possess a set of naturally talented players, brilliant with their skills and technique. Having several players from top European leagues like Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Sardar Azmoun and Karim Ansarifard, the team can be considered serious contenders for the title.
Watch: The upcoming tournament will serve as a test for the Maroons as they prepare to host the next FIFA World Cup in 2022
A rather surprising mention in the list, Qatar will have a huge role to play in the Asian Cup. Supported by an excellent record in international friendlies over the last year, which saw them defeat the likes of Switzerland and Ecuador and earn a fascinating 2-2 draw with Iceland, they are simply a team to watch out for at the tournament.
Under Felix Sanchez Bas, Qatar have earned themselves the recognition of being one of the top teams in Asia. However, the tournament rather serve as a test for the Maroons as they prepare to host the next FIFA World Cup in 2022.
The Asian Cup will be a perfect opportunity for the team to unleash their true potential before the world and create a reputation for themselves, ultimately for the World Cup.
Watch: The defending champions will be without their veteran talisman Tim Cahill
To be fair, Australia didn’t have a good outing at the World Cup last year, but that doesn’t write them off for the upcoming Asian Cup. In fact, the defending champions of 2015, stand a good chance of retaining the title, considering they have learned from their mistakes back in Russia.
Since joining the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in 2006, the Socceroos have a good record in the continental cup, being the runners-up in 2011 before eventually lifting the title in the last edition.
Considering the fact that 17 players out of their 23-man squad play in Europe, Australia have a far more experienced set of players as compared to any of their counterparts in the Cup. Yet, it will be a challenge for Graham Arnold’s side as it will be a totally different scenario in the UAE. What will serve as a test for the Socceroos is that they will be missing their talismanic forward Tim Cahill, the veteran who recently announced his retirement from international football.
Watch: The Blue Samurai are the clear favourites to win the title
Japan are perhaps the only tough opposition, at least on paper, that the Socceroos will face at the Asian Cup. Having 12 players plying their trade in European leagues, the Japanese showed glimpses of their strength as a team during the last World Cup.
Qualifying for the knockout stages, the Blue Samurai almost stunned Belgium in the round of 16 after taking a two-goal lead. Although, the final scoreline went in the favour of the Belgians, the sublime performance that the team put up was one to remember.
As for the Asian Cup too, history supports the Blue Samurai as they are four-time champions of the Cup, leading the pack. However, the climate and food in the UAE may not be favourable for Hajime Moriyasu’s side taking into consideration the way their U-17 side suffered during the World Cup back in 2017 in India.
Also keeping in mind that the Japanese will miss their key frontmen Keisuke Honda and Takashi Inui, skipper Maya Yoshida will have to step up to lead the team.