2019 Asian Cup Preview – Japan Favourites Ahead of Eclectic Expanded Tournament

January 4, 2019

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The most diverse continental football tournament in the world is back with the UAE playing host to the 2019 edition of the Asian Cup, the first of a new era as the tournament has been expanded to accommodate 24 teams.

It promises to be an open and exciting tournament. Defending champions Australia arrive as outsiders after a spate of retirements and injuries to key players from both their triumph on home soil in 2015 and their World Cup campaign in Russia. After the retirements of Tim Cahill and Mile Jedinak and an injury sustained by Aaron Mooy, Tom Rogic and Mathew Leckie stand as the squad’s leading scorers at international level with just eight goals apiece.

But it’s Japan, the only Asian team to make the knockout round of the World Cup, who go into the tournament as deserved favourites. The team, like Australia, has undergone its own revolution of sorts, with stalwarts Makoto Hasebe and Keisuke Honda announcing their retirements after the 2018 World Cup, while, Shinji Kagawa, Takashi Inui and Shinji Okazaki are amongst a host of high-profile names omitted from the squad by coach Hajime Moriyasu.

But the squad will be buoyed by the selection of a host of exciting young talents plying their trade in Europe. Amongst them is Ritsu Doan, the star of Japan’s Under-20 World Cup squad from 2017 and one of the brightest talents in the Eredivisie, and little known Shoya Nakajima – carving out a reputation for himself in Portugal with Portimoense – who presents another young and lethal attacking option for the Samurai Blues.

Iran are one of the sides who’ll be there or thereabouts as they attempt to win the Asian Cup for the first time since 1976. The tournament will be also the last opportunity for Carlos Queiroz to leave a lasting legacy outside of successive World Cup appearances in 2014 and 2018 after the Portuguese’s extremely successful 8-year tenure in charge of Team Melli. Iran were extremely solid throughout the World Cup and if Mehdi Taremi had been able to divert his effort a foot to the right in added time against Portugal, we would’ve been talking about another Asian World Cup knockout round participant.

Japan 2019 Asian Cup favourites

Asia’s other two World Cup representatives in 2018, Saudi Arabia and South Korea, round out the main Asian Cup favourites. While Saudi Arabia look light on goal-scoring options, South Korea cannot be underestimated. They claimed the biggest scalp of any Asian team at last year’s World Cup toppling defending champions Germany in one of the most memorable games of the tournament, and the Taeguk Warriors also boast the tournaments best player in Son Heung-min. With games against Kyrgyzstan and the Philippines to manoeuvre before Son arrives after a deal was struck with Spurs that allowed him to play at the 2018 Asian Games, South Korea should nonetheless feel comfortable emerging from the group in his absence.

Outside of the main favourites though, there are a number of interesting storylines that one would expect to emerge from a tournament that will undoubtedly straddle some tense political lines. As an ongoing gulf-wide blockade of Qatar spearheaded by Saudi Arabia continues, Qatar’s group stage game against the Saudi’s looms as a tense encounter. Its potential to be a decisive game as the last of the group stage only adds to the intrigue. Another layer to the story is Qatar’s ongoing attempt to earn some level of footballing legitimacy before they host the 2022 edition of the World Cup – qualifying for the knockout round of this tournament is the first step towards that.

There are other disturbing geopolitical ties that will take place. Saudi Arabia and North Korea will contest the group stage match with the worst combined Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index score: 152. This will be a repeat of their 2015 Asian Cup match-up between the two in which Saudi Arabia prevailed 4-1. The pair trounce Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in second place with a combined Press Freedom Index score of 144.04. Incidentally, it will also be the first Asian Cup match-up of ‘Stan’ countries since the same duo were matched at the 2004 Asian Cup, with Uzbekistan prevailing 1-0.

There are also some good news stories, though. Palestine arrive at the tournament with a decent chance of emerging from Group B, meanwhile India are sure to bring some colour to the Asian Cup while harbouring their own hopes of getting out of Group A and winning their first match at the tournament since 1964.

Champagne football will not be on offer. But international football tournaments are the best tournaments, and the 2019 Asian Cup promises to be compelling viewing as always.

The Asian Cup begins on the 5th January as UAE take on Bahrain. The tournament is not on British TV but it can be watched live on Unibet

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Author: Stephen Ganavas

Stephen is a freelance football writer from Australia who writes for Guardian Australia, loves Wuílker Fariñez, and heads up the youth-football focused Scouted Football. You can follow him on twitter @StephenScouted

Twitter @StephenScouted

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