This Friday, 16 teams begin their quest to become continental top dogs at the 16th edition of the AFC Asian Cup. Hosted by Australia for the first time, the tournament will run from 9 to 31 January.
There will be no shortage of star names gracing the event, with standout players from every team hoping to follow in the footsteps of the current and former greats who made their names at past editions. But who will rise to the occasion at Australia 2015 and step into the limelight? To help answer that, FIFA.com brings you a group-by-group assessment of the players to watch.
Group A: Experience vs. Youth
After reaching the previous Asian Cup final, hosts Australia are favourites to go all the way in 2015. The Socceroos have put their faith in a squad that features promising youngsters and experienced leaders like Tim Cahill, who at 35 is the oldest player taking part this year. But the New York Red Bulls forward is not the only veteran campaigner in Group A. Oman’s hopes of making it past the opening round rest in large part on goalkeeper and team captain Ali Al Habsi, who featured in the 2004 and 2007 editions.
Korea Republic are another side with lofty ambitions. The core of German coach Uli Stielike’s squad is made up of players who ply their trade overseas, including talismanic captain Ki Sungyueng of Swansea City. The youngest player in the side is 22-year-old tyro Son Heungmin of Bayer Leverkusen, who performed with distinction at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. Kuwait have their own ace in the hole in Bader Al Motawwa, whose individual skills can turn the course of any match.
Group B: Asia’s finest
The standout name in Group B is Saudi Arabia’s Nassir Al Shamrani, voted Asian Player of the Year for 2014 after his outstanding performances for Al Hilal in their AFC Champions League triumph. After the disappointment of losing the final of November’s Gulf Cup, Saudi coach Cosmin Olaroiu will be hoping Al Shamrani can rediscover his goalscoring touch in time for Australia.
That said, the Al Hilal forward will not be the only one at Australia 2015 to have been voted the continent’s top player. Uzbekistan midfielder Server Djeparov has claimed the honour twice before and will be looking to lead his side beyond the semi-final spot they managed in 2011. Then there is China PR’s Zheng Zhi, who was crowned Asia’s best player in 2013 after helping Guangzhou Evergrande take the AFC Champions League title. Moreover, he is an experienced campaigner with a stint in the English Premier League to his name with Charlton Athletic.
Korea DPR also have an award-winner in their ranks: 2010’s most promising player Jong Il Gwan, who was top scorer in Asian competitions in 2014. For his side to have a chance of surviving a tough group, he will need to continue in that vein Down Under.
Group C: Talent throughout
The third quartet at Australia 2015 has more than its fair share of gifted individuals, such as Iran striker Reza Ghoochannejhad, who scored his country’s only goal at Brazil 2014 and was joint top scorer in the Asian Cup qualifiers alongside United Arab Emirates front man Ali Mabkhout. The latter is heavily reliant on the excellent service provided by midfielder Omar Abdulrahman, who has been frequently outstanding in recent years.
Qatar, meanwhile, will be looking to their highly regarded winger Khalfan Ibrahim, another former Asian Player of the Year and a contender for the award again last year. For their part, Bahrain will be aiming to reprise their semi-final run from 2004 and will need towering striker Ismaeel Abdulatif Hasan to show the form he regularly produces for Qatari club Muharraq.
Group D: Attacking skills
In Group D, title-holders Japan come up against three west Asian teams in the shape of 2007 winners Iraq, Jordan, and debutants Palestine. Javier Aguirre’s charges are expected to come out of their section without undue difficulties and draw on the experience of a number of veteran competitors, particularly AC Milan striker Keisuke Honda, who has taken part in two FIFA World Cups, scoring on three separate occasions.
Iraq’s Younus Mahmoud will need to be on top of his game if his side is to reprise the glory days of 2007, when he scored the winning goal in the final. Elsewhere, Kuwaiti club Al Arabi’s star striker Ahmad Hayel will be the lynchpin of the Jordan squad assembled by English coach Ray Wilkins, while Palestine will be hoping Ashraf Al Fawaghra can replicate the form he has shown for Saudi side Al Faisaly.
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Who do you think will win Best Player at the Asian Cup 2015?