Asian heavyweights take to Qatar
Australia, Japan and South Korea head into the Asian Cup as clear favourites in a tournament that will test Qatar's ability to host a major event after being controversially awarded the 2022 World Cup.
The three-week football festival, featuring the region's top 16 teams, kicks off on January 7 when the hosts face Uzbekistan ahead of the final on January 29.
How the tiny Gulf emirate fares in staging such a high-profile tournament will be closely watched after FIFA surprisingly handed it the World Cup ahead of more fancied bids from Australia, Japan, South Korea and the United States. Qatar has insisted that it won on the merits of a bold proposal to build climate-controlled stadia that will enable players and fans to be comfortable in its desert heat.
But there have been plenty of sceptics amid claims that the decision was political, linked to Qatar's deep pockets. While 16 teams take part, the heavyweight trio of Australia, Japan and South Korea are expected to dominate as they look to build on solid showings at the 2010 World Cup.
But it won't be a three-horse race with Iraq the defending champions and Kuwait coming off a morale-boosting victory at the recent Gulf Cup, while Iran and Saudi Arabia can never be written off. Australia's squad of European-based stars are desperate to make amends for their maiden tournament in 2007 when they struggled. Back then, the Socceroos found it difficult to adapt to the hot and humid conditions of Southeast Asia. Winter in Doha will suit them more - warm during the day but chilly in the evening.
"I have the confidence that this team is pretty strong and they are ready to really produce something," said Socceroos coach Holger Osieck.
The Aussies have a formidable squad led by Everton attacking midfielder Tim Cahill, Blackburn's Brett Emerton, Fulham goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer and the Galatasaray pair of Harry Kewell and Lucas Neill. They are grouped with the Park Ji-Sung-led South Korea, who made the knockout rounds in South Africa. The Koreans are gunning to land a first Asian title in 51 years, leaving fellow Group C teams Bahrain and India facing an early exit. But they have suffered a blow with the withdrawal of injured striker Park Chu-Young.
"I have faith in our players' capabilities," said South Korean coach Cho Kwang-Rae in playing down the Monaco star's absence. "Football is not an individual sport, and if each of the 23 players can come together, we can overcome this problem."
Japan also has a strong line-up, with CSKA Moscow midfielder Keisuke Honda chosen to lead the Blue Samurai. Honda scored two goals in the World Cup as Japan reached the knockout stage in their best performance on foreign soil before losing to Paraguay in the last 16. He is one of eight Europe-based players in Japan's squad, with Lierse SK goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima, defenders Yuto Nagatomo of Cesena, Atsuto Uchida of Schalke, and Maya Yoshida of VVV Venlo among those joining him.
"The Japanese team has been improving in 2010 with the excellent result in the World Cup and the men's and women's gold medals in the Asian Games," said manager Alberto Zaccheroni, the former boss of AC Milan. "We should keep the momentum."
The three-time champions get their campaign underway on January 9 against Jordan. Saudi Arabia and Syria are also in the group and play their opener on the same night. Qatar and Uzbekistan kick-off the tournament at the Khalifa Stadium, one of five arenas being used, all in the capital Doha. They are in Group A alongside perennial underachievers China and Kuwait.
Defending champions Iraq are back to try and emulate their finest footballing achievement when they beat Saudi Arabia in the 2007 final. But it won't be easy with Iran, United Arab Emirates and North Korea awaiting them in Group D. Their 2007 success, which came during a brutal sectarian conflict back home, was portrayed as national triumph. Since then, however, the team has been unable to recapture its form. They open their account against Iran on January 11.