Excitement is building across Asia as the 15th edition of the AFC Asian Cup draws ever closer. With the continental showpiece set to kick off in Qatar in less than three months’ time, the 16 qualifiers have spent recent weeks fine-tuning their form as former champions attempt to recapture the Asian title.

Prominent among the favourites at this stage are Japan and Iran, both of whom have set their sights on lifting the trophy for a record fourth time. Japan continued their good form with a shock 1-0 form over Argentina, while Iran swept aside Bahrain and Iraq to reach the final of the recent West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) Championship, only to be edged out by Kuwait by 2-1.

Morale-boosting performances
Former AC Milan coach Alberto Zaccheroni could surely not have wished for a better start to his tenure as Japan coach. The Argentina side he enjoyed the better of in his first game in charge might have been spearheaded by Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez – and dominated large spells - but Japan also created chances and claimed the game’s decisive goal through Shinji Okazaki. Another clean sheet followed four days later when they played out a goalless draw against a Korea Republic side who had prevailed in the two sides’ two previous meetings this year.

“We have many players with good qualities and they have the ability to get much better,” Zaccheroni said after this encouraging double-header. “My job is to make them realise their potential.” Having won their maiden Asian title in 1992 on home soil, Japan’s next continental successes came in back-to-back tournaments in 2000 and 2004 under Philippe Troussier and Zico respectively, leaving Zaccheroni hoping to become the third foreign coach to lead his side to glory.

With his first two games in charge also the team’s last before they head to Qatar 2011, where they have been grouped alongside Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan, Zaccheroni believes that Japan must hit the ground running. He said: “We need to improve our reading of the games and thus respond flexibly. I hope we can continue to make progress at the Asian Cup because our ultimate goal is to reach Brazil 2014.”

Iran, meanwhile, followed up their friendly wins over China and Korea Republic last month with an impressive campaign at the WAFF Championship, firing three unanswered goals past Bahrain in the before edging reigning Asian champions Iraq 2-1 in the last four. Although they went on to lose the final, and also went down 3-0 to Brazil a friendly on Thursday, Iran’s progress under Afshin Ghotbi is quickly becoming evident.

“I hope that we can send a good team to the the Asian Cup,” said Ghotbi, whose side are pitted against Iraq, Korea DPR and the United Arab Emirates in the group phase. “We should build a team which gradually becomes stronger in each match, like Germany.”

Mixed fortunes
Also targeting a fourth Asian title are Jose Peseiro’s Saudi Arabia, who opened up their preparations with a resounding 4-0 home victory over Uzbekistan on Saturday. Mohanad Aseeri struck twice in the opening half, with Tayseer Al-Jassim and Saleh Basheer on target in the second period. However, the Sons of Desert remain a largely unpredictable side, losing 2-0 to Bulgaria on Tuesday before beating Gabon in their most recent friendly outing, with Ala Richani netting the only goal after just four minutes.

Inspired by their impressive display at the FIFA World Cup South Africa 2010™, Korea Republic are looking to take those performances into the continental arena by winning their first Asian Cup in five decades, having previously emerged victors in 1956 and 1960. However, the Taeguk Warriors failed to score in their 1-0 defeat to Iran in September and the recent draw with Japan, leaving new coach Cho Kwang-Rae with plenty of food for thought.

Another coach with much to ponder is Iraq’s Wolfgang Sidka, whose side’s preparations concluded with a 2-1 triumph against Qatar, atoning somewhat for their defeat to Iran. And it might well be worth looking out for West Asia’s in-form side, Kuwait, especially after the 1980 Asian Cup winners outclassed Iran for their first-ever success at the WAFF Championship.