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Jan 6, 2011

2011 Asian Cup: Team-by-team guide

ESPNsoccernet brings you a team-by-team guide to all the participants at the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar - ahead of the kick-off to the continent's showpiece football competition on Friday.

Group A

Qatar

With the 2022 World Cup decision still fresh in the memory, Asian Cup hosts Qatar are hoping to make headlines for exploits on the football pitch. Encouragement will be taken from the fact that they won the 2006 Asian Games on home soil and possess a number of naturalised South Americans in their line-up. With the wily Bruno Metsu at the helm, Qatar will be disappointed if they don't make it to the quarter-finals but won't expect much more than that.

Key Player: Sebastian Soria. Born in Uruguay, Soria brings a touch of Latin flair, and headbands, to Qatar. Tall, powerful and good on both the ground and in the air, he also brings goals, managing three at the 2007 tournament and aiming to exceed that tally this time.

China

Who knows which Chinese side will turn up? It remains to be seen if this young version can break out of the pattern established by the older hands who exited early from qualification for the 2010 World Cup and the 2007 Asian Cup. The new faces, including coach Gao Hongbo, have been doing well and some very good friendly results have raised expectations - always dangerous in China. It is precisely at such times that the Chinese tend to implode. We will see.

Key Player : Du Wei. The one-time Celtic centre-back needs to provide the leadership for China that has been sorely missed at recent tournaments.

Uzbekistan

The Central Asians have rarely made headlines in football on the continent since their formation in 1992 after the break-up of the Soviet Union. This could be due to the fact that they can't quite decide which tier they belong to; just when Uzbekistan had looked set to become a genuine power in the region, they slipped back into the pack. Players and fans alike bemoan the lack of a winning mentality but will not be too disappointed with the group they have been placed in. Uzbekistan have the strikers to score in Qatar but need to find consistency in order to progress and better their quarter-final appearances in 2004 and 2007.

Key player: Server Djeparov. It has been some time since a player with a mullet has made headlines around the world but the midfield schemer could be that man. If he doesn't shrink back from taking games by the scruff of the neck, the 2008 Asian Player of the Year could inspire Uzbekistan and be in the running for the 2011 prize

Kuwait

Kuwait have pedigree in this competition, but the glory days of the late seventies and early eighties are fading from memory. Their recent Gulf Cup glory set pulses racing - as did a 9-1 thrashing of fellow Asian Cuppers India in November - though the most impressive recent result was during qualification when the Blues won 1-0 in Australia. A good footballing team managed by Serb Goran Tufegdzic, Kuwait could finish first or fourth in what is a very open group.

Key Player: Badar Al Mutawa. The striker has a great goalscoring record and was linked to a La Liga move in the not-too-distant past. The Asian Cup is his chance to become the genuine continental star that his talent demands.

Group B

Saudi Arabia

Kings of the Asian Cup, the Green Falcons have appeared in the final in six of the last seven competitions, winning three and losing three. You can't argue with a record like that and that is what made it a touch surprising that the powers-that-be in Riyadh didn't fire coach Jose Peseiro after the Saudis' failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. It remains to be seen if this unprecedented spell of stability reaps rewards. Friendly results have been mixed but with Saudi Arabia they always are; playing in Qatar will suit and the team have their sights set firmly on the final.

Key Player: Yasser Al Qahtani. The striker has the skill to be a world star but maybe not the attitude. There is still time but he needs to start focusing.

Japan

2010 was a year of (roughly) two halves for Japan. The first was dreadful but the Blue Samuari haven't looked back since coming within a whisker of the World Cup quarter-finals in South Africa. With new coach Walter Zaccheroni on board, star players like Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Makoto Hasebe in great form in Europe and a whole host of talented J-Leaguers ready to show what they can do, Japan look to be in with a great shout of a fourth continental crown.

Key Player: Keisuke Honda. If one of the hottest properties in world football can reproduce his South African form in Qatar then Japan will be as hard to stop as the inevitable Honda driving/motoring headlines.

Syria

Hard to beat - they were undefeated in six qualification matches – and physically strong, the Syrians are improving but will struggle to overcome the big guns in their group. The sacking of Ghana's 2006 World Cup coach Ratomir Dujkovic just before the start of the tournament has made a tough job that bit tougher. Romanian coach Valeriu Tita is the replacement and at least knows the local scene well. But it is unlikely to be enough to take the team into the knockout stages for the first time.

Key Player: Firas Al-Khatib. The striker usually scores for fun in West Asia and he will certainly need to finish whatever chances come his way if his team hopes to progress.

Jordan

Jordan complete the West Asian trio in Group B and are widely expected to be fighting for third place. The 2004 quarter-finalists qualified in fairly unimpressive, albeit dramatic, fashion with the arrival of former Iraq coach Adnan Hamad midway through inspiring the late turnaround. The wily Hamad may be the team's best hope of upsetting the big boys.

Key Player: Amer Deeb. The Al-Wahdat star not only has one of the best names in Asian football, he contributes more than his fair share of goals from midfield.

Group C

South Korea

The team with easily the best World Cup record on the continent has not won the Asian Cup since 1960. It is not exactly 51 years of hurt but there is a determination to bring the trophy back to Seoul that has often been lacking in the past. The loss of star striker Park Chu-Young is a blow and much depends on how quickly Korea can adapt to the way that new coach Cho Kwang-Rae wants to play. The Taeguk warriors have played Iran at the quarter-final stage at the last four tournaments and could do so again (though an intriguing clash with North Korea is also in the pipeline).

Key Player: Park Ji-Sung. South Korea's Captain, inspiration and a class player. Park should collect his 100th cap in Qatar and his last act as an international player (if you believe that he really will retire) could be lifting the trophy. It almost sounds like destiny.

Australia

Last time round, the new kids on the block swaggered into Asia and casually talked of winning the cup undefeated. A quarter-final exit followed and such boasts are conspicuous by their absence this time. These realistic 'Roos will still fancy their chances despite the injury to target man Josh Kennedy. It is an experienced and international squad that new coach Holger Oseick takes to Qatar, with only four of the 23 plying their trade in the A-League. Eager to put the disappointment of South Africa behind them, Australia should be there or thereabouts.

Key Player: Lucas Neill. Australia have the players to score but much depends on how a backline that creaked in Germany performs in Qatar. Neill has to hold it together.

Bahrain

The tiny West Asian nation is still coming to terms with missing out on the World Cup at the hands of New Zealand in the final play-off. The reward for that is being placed with two of Asia's top teams. The team with the seventh-highest FIFA ranking in Asia defeated South Korea in the 2007 edition of the competition and reached the semi-final three years earlier. Such exploits seem unlikely this time around. A poor Gulf Cup in December followed the departure of Austrian Josef Hickersberger and the appointment of former international Salman Sharida two months earlier.

Key Player: Mahmood Abdulraham. Known as 'Ringo' due to his nose, but the comparison to the Beatles drummer could also apply to his sense of timing when blasting home last minute goals from midfield.

India

The Indian press pack has already booked flights home at the end of the first round and fans are taking bets as to whether the Bhangra Boys will be able to keep the goals against column in single figures in Qatar. The smart money seems to be against it as the team, which qualified for the competition for the first time since 1984, will be happy to take one point back home from a tough group. Recent results - 9-1 against Kuwait, 5-0 against UAE and 6-3 at the hands of Yemen - have turned what was excitement into utter apprehension. It will be a major shock in India don't finish last.

Key Player: Subrata Paul. A talented goalkeeper who will get a chance to prove it time and time again over the coming weeks. If he can play a blinder or two then who knows?

Group D

Iran

There can't be a team more focused on the competition than Iran. Ever since the trauma of World Cup qualification failure, the Asian tournament has been earmarked as an opportunity for redemption. Preparation started almost as soon as the disappointed team arrived back in Tehran in June 2009. The new regime is more pragmatic than the unpredictable Team Mellis of the past and the players are eager to bring home a first trophy since 1976.

Key Player: Masoud Shojaei. He may not be quite as good as his swagger often suggests, but if the Osasuna star can produce his best form then Iran could go all the way.

UAE

It is unfortunate for the 1990 World Cup participants that they have been drawn in a group containing three teams that could progress to the latter stages of the tournament, but UAE are an unpredictable team and have the talent to shock - especially in their own backyard. There are a number of young players breaking through and by the time the next Asian Cup in Australia comes around in 2015, UAE could be a genuine force. This tournament may be a little too early.

Key Player: Ismail Matar. The 27 year-old forward is at his peak and ready to show the world what he can do and, perhaps, impress a few European suitors.

North Korea

North Korea don't often do the Asian Cup, but after the roller-coaster of South Africa there are high expectations. Coach Kim Jong-Hun has been replaced with the experienced Jo Tong-Sop, but the familiar faces on the pitch remain. There have been reports of team disharmony, however, and there was confusion over whether striker Jong Tae-Se would actually appear. He will, and the Bochum star, like his team-mates, will be determined to prove themselves, with many of which are seeking European moves. They will be hard to beat and their South Africa experience will compensate for the loss of their mystery.

Key Player: Jong Tae-Se. The way the team plays depends on Jong's speed, power and willingness to run himself into the ground. 'The People's Rooney' is not bad in front of goal either.

Iraq

The defending champions shocked the world in 2007 by lifting the trophy in Jakarta and it would be a sanother huge surprise if the Lions of Mesopotamia were to do the same in Doha. The years since have not been great as the team failed to come anywhere near qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. The stars of 2007 - striker Younis Mahmoud and midfield Nashat Akram - are still around, and while the team has the capability to match the best, it all depends on whether they can find consistency.

Key Player: Younis Mahmoud The Desert Fox led his team to glory in 2007. Still one of the region's star strikers, a repeat performance is needed and he looks to be in good form.

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