AFC Asian Cup 2019: when does it start, who are the favourites and can anyone stop Son Heung-min’s South Korea in the UAE?

  • Japan arrive at 17th tournament looking for a fourth continental crown
  • Month of football will be a shop window for Asia’s best players
PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 January, 2019, 8:04am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 January, 2019, 8:03am

The AFC Asian Cup begins in Abu Dhabi on Saturday to kick off a month-long tournament to find the best team on the continent.

This is the 17th edition of the tournament that Japan has won a record four times. Australia are the defending champions while Saudi Arabia and Iran have won it three times each. The action comes from the UAE and takes place from January 5 to February 1.

What is new for 2019?

This year there are 24 teams competing, up from 16 at the last edition in 2015.

The rule change means more chance for teams to qualify for the knockout stage as third-placed teams can still go through. That’s good news for some of the weaker teams who might make the round of 16.

Who are the favourites?

Iran, Japan (both $4.35) and South Korea ($4.45) are the bookmakers favourites. Australia are the best of the rest ($5.65) ahead of Saudi Arabia and the hosts UAE (both $9).

India, Turkmenistan, Philippines, Kyrgyzstan and Yemen are all priced at $1,000. The latter three nations are playing their first ever Asian Cup.

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Group games to watch

The fixture schedulers have thrown up some guaranteed crackers for the final group games, no matter what results in the first two games deliver.

Australia and Syria meet again (January 15) after a World Cup play-off to see who went on to the final game against Honduras.

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Australia won that but only after going behind in seven minutes of the second leg in Sydney. The Syrians should not need motivation.

South Korea vs China (January 16) offers China a chance to see where their football project is against a team that knocked world champions Germany out of the World Cup in Russia last summer.

Finally, Iran vs Iraq (January 17) is the derby game of the Asian Cup, and in Iran features the continent’s highest-rated side on the Fifa list. Iran also troubled some of the world’s best in Russia.

Players to watch

Son Heung-min needs no introduction. He is the best player in Asia and the South Korea forward has been in fine form for English Premier League side Spurs this season. He has six goals and three assists in his last five games for the club and will get a chance to maintain that as he only leaves for the UAE after they play Manchester United on January 13, a deal reached with the club after his Asian Games duty last August.

That means his first game will be against Wu Lei, China’s best player and one that has been linked with his own move to Europe. Wu was a major factor in Shanghai SIPG winning the Chinese Super League last season and the hope is he can bring his scoring boots to the Asia Cup.

There are a number of other players who will be known to those that do not watch Asian football.

Australia’s squad is the one with the most players from outside of its national league. Made up of players from the UK leagues and European top flights, it is led by Brighton goalkeeper Mathew Ryan.

Perugia’s Han Kwang-song might be the best known of the North Korea squad but South Korea’s contains familiar names from European football, as does Japan’s.

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Who might have a breakout tournament?

The tournament, like any other continental championship, is a shop window and the scouts will be in attendance.

Plenty of players will attract attention with a decent showing in the UAE but here are three to keep an eye on.

China’s Wei Shihao at 22 is responsible for dragging down the average age of the oldest squad (28.74 years) at the tournament. The Beijing Guoan winger impressed last season, as he had done with Shanghai SIPG the season before.

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Vietnam’s Nguyen Quang Hai, 21, was key to Vietnam’s AFC Under-23 runner-up spot a year ago and he has grown into his midfield role, winning the MVP at the recent AFF Suzuki Cup.

An even bigger star of Southeast Asian football is Thailand’s Chanathip Songkrasin, who plays his club football for J.League 1 side Consadole Sapporo. At 25, many believe he still has the potential to be world class.

Important dates

Group stage: January 5-17

Round of 16: January 20-21

Quarter-finals: January 24-25

Semi-finals: January 28-29

Final: February 1

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What are the groups?

Group A – Bahrain, Thailand, India, UAE

Group B – Australia, Jordan, Palestine, Syria

Group C – China, South Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Philippines

Group D – Iran, Iraq, Vietnam, Yemen

Group E – North Korea, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia

Group F – Japan, Oman, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan