Friday 04 January 2019, 07:06

Aspirants on the starting blocks for expanded Asian Cup

  • AFC Asian Cup takes place in UAE throughout January

  • World’s second-oldest continental tournament expanded to 24 nations

  • Strong field of key contenders chase title

The AFC Asian Cup is set for a new milestone with the upcoming edition expanded to 24 nations. The peak football competition for the globe’s most populace continent boasts a rich and colourful history. First held in 1956, the Asian Cup is the second-oldest continental tournament in the world, behind only the Copa America.

The 2019 edition will kick off on Saturday in the United Arab Emirates, with eight extra nations making for an epic 51-match event over 28 days. Appropriately all five of the continent’s sub-regions will be represented, including several debutants. With the 2022 FIFA World Cup™ in Qatar on the horizon - the first to be held in west Asia - the enhanced tournament is perfectly timed.

It comes on the back of Asia’s spirited showing at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia. Korea Republic famously defeated reigning world champions Germany, Japan knocked over Colombia, while Australia pushed France to the brink, as did IR Iran against Spain and the Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal. Al Ain’s charge to the recent FIFA Club World Cup final on home soil provided yet more evidence of the continent’s development.

The continental kings

Four-time champions Japan head to UAE with a stunning historical record but a relatively fresh-looking squad. Headline names Shinji Okazaki and Shinji Kagawa are omitted, while the likes of Makoto Hasebe and Keisuke Honda are now retired. The Samurai Blue incredibly have won three of the past five tournaments, but the quarter-final exit four years ago was their worst showing since 1996.

The defending champs

Winners on home soil in 2015, Australia head to just their fourth Asian championship having featured in the two previous finals. Breakthrough stars from four years ago such as Massimo Luongo, Trent Sainsbury and Mat Ryan now form the backbone of the side. However, the squad has been hit hard by injuries and the retirement of star pair Tim Cahill and Mile Jedinak.

The aspirants

Korea Republic, IR Iran and Saudi Arabia are all well placed after building a strong platform at Russia 2018. The former pair in particular are aiming to break unexpectedly long droughts at continental level, having not tasted glory since 1960 and 1976 respectively.

China PR will harbour high hopes under World Cup winning-coach Marcello Lippi, as will UAE on home soil, having impressed during Russia 2018 qualifying. Regular quarter-finalists Uzbekistan will be hoping to show their wares at the tournament as a platform for another shot at long-awaited World Cup qualification.

The debutants

Kyrgyz Republic, Philippines and Yemen are the three new faces at the tournament, with the trio encapsulating the continent’s cultural diversity. Palestine return after their debut four years ago, while Lebanon feature for the first time other than as hosts. Another notable qualifier is India, who will participate for just the second time since 1984.

2019 AFC Asian Cup

United Arab Emirates (Eight venues in four cities) 5 January – 1 February

Global representation in the dugout

The list of coaches leading the 24 teams makes for a fascinating read, with just four nations represented by a local coach. Aside from Lippi and Russia 2018 participants, there are a host of former World Cup coaches including Alberto Zaccheroni (UAE), Milovan Rajevac (Thailand), Sven Goran Eriksson (Philippines), Hector Cuper (Uzbekistan) and Pim Verbeek (Oman).

Creative outlets absent

The tournament will be shorn of a number of high-profile players due to injury. Australia are perhaps the most hard-hit with key creative outlets Aaron Mooy and Daniel Arzani absent, while Tom Rogic and Mathew Leckie are under injury clouds. The hosts, meanwhile, are without their undoubted talisman in Omar Abdulrahman, with their No10 having shone brightly in Australia four years ago. Oman saw their most famous player ruled out on the eve of the tournament, with former English Premier League goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi to miss what will likely be his final chance to play at an Asian Cup.

Five-star ‘keeper eyes history books

Veteran Uzbekistan goalkeeper Ignatiy Nesterov is set to write his name into the annals of the Asian Cup. The 35-year-old is on the verge of becoming the first player to feature in five tournaments, eclipsing the mark held by several players including former winners Yasuhito Endo and Younis Mahmoud.