2023 Asian Cup: Who will win the continent’s most prestigious prize?

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As the highly anticipated AFC Asian Cup kicks off on January 12, the football world’s attention is once again back on the Middle East.

The tournament will take place in Qatar, just over a year after they hosted the FIFA World Cup 2022.

This year, the Maroons begin the campaign as the reigning champions, having won the trophy in 2019 after a 3-1 victory over Japan. Still, preparation for this tournament has proved tricky after manager Carlos Queiroz was replaced by Marques Lopez in November.

Host nation Qatar kicks off the tournament against Lebanon at the Lusail stadium. The remaining games will be played in Al Rayyan, Al Khor, Al Wakrah and Doha locations.

Japan is the tournament’s most successful side to date, with four wins under their belt. Team Japan arrived in Doha fresh off the back of a 5-0 victory over Thailand in Tokyo. Premier League stars Wataru Endo of Liverpool, Takehiro Tomiyasu of Arsenal and Kaoru Mitoma of Brighton have all been named in the Samurai Blue squad. Japan enters the competition as one of the favourites to win and will be looking for their fifth title.

Japan’s head coach Hajime Moriyasu looks at his players warming up during a training session of Japan national team in Doha

Hot on Japan’s heels is Saudi Arabia, who have won the Asian Cup three times. They will be confident of a strong tournament, having appointed Roberto Mancini as their manager in 2023. The Italian has a strong pedigree after lifting the European Championship trophy with Italy in 2021. Saudi star Salem Al Dawsari was recently named Asia’s Player of the Year for 2023. The winger scored the winning goal against Argentina at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Al Dawsari is having a great season with domestic side Al Hilal, who are at the top of the Saudi Pro League.

Asian Cup Fan Ambassador Aaron Fernandes expects The Falcons to go far into the competition.

“Saudi will be an interesting team to watch. The hype they created at the World Cup, beating Argentina. They were the only team to beat the world champions. That’s a good record at the tournament, and we have to see how they perform at the Asian Cup as well. Good transfers are happening in the local league as well. Roberto Mancini, another renowned coach, is taking over. It’s going to be a good tournament, and it’s going to be brilliant to see the different scenarios play out.”

Another key player to keep an eye on is Son Heung-Min. The Tottenham Hotspur captain has won the ‘Best Footballer in Asia’ award on six consecutive occasions between 2017 and 2022. Son will be hoping that he can lead his South Korea side to a third Asian Cup victory.

Son Heung Min is Tottenham and South Korea’s most recognised player

Iran also has three Asian Cup titles to their name. Striker Mehdi Taremi will be looking to guide his side to the first victory since 1986. The Porto striker has scored 86 goals for his club and 41 goals for his country.

Elsewhere, Australia will go in confidently following a solid 2022 showing in Qatar. They are ranked at number 25 by FIFA after reaching the last 16 of the men’s World Cup. Australia beat Bahrain 2-0 in Abu Dhabi in their final warm-up game before the AFC Asian Cup and will face India in their first tournament match.

Excitement for the tournament has also ramped up on the pitch. A spectacular event launched the AFC Asian Cup in Doha in December 2023. The official mascots were unveiled alongside cultural performances from many nations participating in the tournament.

The mascot’s designer, Ahmed Al Maadheed, told Football Now that the unveiling highlights the tournament’s family-friendly vibe.

“We’re proud of our environment, and these animals are very fast in their natural environment. It’s great for players, as we give them a family. Because family is very important to us, our community, and Asia. Family is the most important factor in making superheroes, to make them like their children and become united. So solidarity is number one. So this is the first message. We are all family. And we are united.

For the competing nations, lifting the AFC Asian Cup is the number one priority. Still, off the pitch, the tournament is an opportunity to showcase the continent’s continued love for football. Qatar will once again deliver on its promise of a successful international competition.

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