Battle for Asian supremacy begins
Iran, Japan and South Korea among the favourites for Jan 5-Feb 1 continental showpiece
The 17th Asian Cup, which kicks off tomorrow, will be the biggest edition in the tournament's 62-year history.
But even with its expansion from 16 to 24 teams, the likes of Iran, Japan and South Korea remain the favourites for the Jan 5-Feb 1 event hosted by the United Arab Emirates.
Iran won credit at last year's World Cup, where they beat Morocco 1-0, lost by the same scoreline to Spain, and drew 1-1 against Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal, before exiting at the group stage.
However, they will want to go home with more than just praise at the Asian Cup, a tournament where success has eluded them since their run of three straight titles ended in 1976.
Ex-Real Madrid coach Carlos Queiroz, also a former assistant to Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, has forged a formidable unit which were unbeaten in World Cup qualifying, strolling into the Asian Cup along the way.
Expect fireworks when Iran face arch-rivals Iraq for their final Group D game on Jan 16. At the 2015 Asian Cup, Iraq had knocked them out in the quarter-finals. In the semis, Iraq then lost to South Korea, who will be bidding to go one better this time around.
In Tottenham Hotspur's swift forward Son Heung Min, South Korea boast Asia's most exciting player and they will be regarded as narrow favourites to hoist the trophy on Feb 1.
The Taeguk Warriors showed their quality when they stunned holders Germany at last year's World Cup and they came within a whisker of winning their third Asian title in 2015, going down to James Troisi's extra-time strike for hosts Australia in the final.
Son will miss South Korea's first two games, against the Philippines and Kyrgyzstan, owing to club commitments with Spurs.
But with a wealth of talent, including Newcastle's Ki Sung Yeung and goalkeeper Jo Hyeon Woo, Man of the Match in the 2-0 win over Germany, South Korea should have at least one foot in the knockout stages by then.
Japan go into the Asian Cup chasing a record-extending fifth title and in a rich vein of form. The Samurai Blue are unbeaten in five games since Hajime Moriyasu replaced Akira Nishino as coach after their surprise run to the knockout stages of last year's World Cup.
But Japan embark on their Middle Eastern adventure without two players who epitomise their waspish energy - Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki.
Both were omitted by Moriyasu, who looks to Red Bull Salzburg's Takumi Minamino to provide the creative spark in Kagawa's absence.
Southampton defender Maya Yoshida and Galatasaray full-back Yuto Nagatomo bring experience to Japan, who face Uzbekistan, Oman and Turkmenistan in Group F.
Ranked 50th in the world, behind Iran (29) and Australia (41), anything less than the semi-finals would be seen as failure for Japan, who were the only Asian side to reach the knockout stages of last year's World Cup.
In contrast, there was not much to shout about for Saudi Arabia at the World Cup, when they lost 5-0 to Russia in their opening game and never recovered.
In the UAE, Juan Antonio Pizzi - the fourth coach in the Saudi hot seat since the 2015 Asian Cup - can expect an easier ride than in Russia as they open against North Korea on Tuesday.
However, Saudi Arabia flopped at the last Asian Cup, going out at the group stage, and they go into this edition after winning only one of their six games since the World Cup.
Australia, too, will be hoping to redeem themselves following a dismal outing at the World Cup, where they exited without a win, scoring only twice in their three group games.
The Socceroos, who are the defending champions at this Asian Cup, are a side in transition since the retirement of record scorer Tim Cahill.
New coach Graham Arnold will be hoping to find a perfect blend of experience ( Mark Milligan, Robbie Kruse and Mathew Leckie) and youth (Chris Ikonomidis and Awer Mabil). - AFP