Tournament pedigree, in-form players, a successful coach and impressive recent results leave Japan as favourites to claim a record fourth Asian Cup title amongst an evenly matched 16-team field in Doha.
Alberto Zaccheroni took over Japan in August keen to build on their best performance at a World Cup on foreign soil after they reached the last 16 in South Africa, and has been set the task of finishing at least third in the January 7-29 tournament.
However, the Italian, who began his reign with a surprise 1-0 win over a full-strength Argentina and has seen 21-year-old attacking midfielder Shinji Kagawa flourish in his debut season at Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund, is in confident mood.
“Going out with this lineup, we should not fear any opponent,” Zaccheroni, who won Serie A with AC Milan in 1999, said.
CSKA Moscow’s freekick specialist Keisuke Honda and former AFC Player of the Year Yasuhito Endo also provide creativity for the Blue Samurai who face Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia in Group B.
The Saudis, who knocked Japan out of the 2007 tournament, failed to reach the World Cup finals for the first time since 1990 and the Gulf side’s Portuguese boss Jose Peseiro is the most under-pressure coach at the Asian Cup.
He took charge near the end of the World Cup qualifying campaign but was not spared criticism for the failure and will need a good showing with the three-time winners and 2007 runners-up to avoid the sack.
Australia (26th) are the highest ranked team in the tournament according to world governing body Fifa but, with an ageing side that failed to deliver at last year’s World Cup, they have been keen to play down expectations.
Thirty-somethings Tim Cahill, Harry Kewell, Mark Schwarzer, Lucas Neill and Brett Emerton will again lead the Socceroos’ charge as they attempt to improve on their quarter-final exit in their debut Asian Cup showing four years ago.
“It’s very difficult for me to consider ourselves favourites,” Cahill said. “I’m a realist and I haven’t been in camp long enough. I haven’t been with the side long enough. The other teams have been together longer.”
South Korea, drawn with Australia, India and Bahrain in Group C, are expected to mount a strong challenge for their first Asian Cup title in 51 years but the loss of key striker Park Chu-young, injured after celebrating a goal for French club AS Monaco, is a big blow.
The Koreans, who reached the last 16 of the World Cup, will look to in-form midfielders Park Ji-sung of Manchester United and Bolton Wanderers’ Lee Chung-yong for inspiration but need someone to convert the chances they create to win a third title.
“We can’t keep worrying about Park Chu-young’s injury,” said South Korea coach Cho Kwang-rae. “Football is not an individual sport and if each of the 23 players can come together we can overcome this problem.”
Champions Iraq, whose shock victory in 2007 proved how open the tournament traditionally is, are just happy to be here after enduring a tumultuous four years since they won the trophy.
They have the tricky task of getting out of Group D - which contains old foes Iran, secretive North Korea and United Arab Emirates - after being banned by Fifa twice and using several coaches since Jorvan Vieira quit following the 2007 triumph.
“I think we should try to do it (win the tournament) again,” said coach Wolfgang Sidka. “But first we have the match with Iran and that’s our neighbours and our rivals and then our target is to reach the quarter-finals.”
The tournament kicks-off on Friday with hosts Qatar facing Uzbekistan in Group A, which appears the weakest of the four pools.
The Qataris are led by much travelled French coach Bruno Metsu and will be cheered on by a loyal home following but escaping a group that also features Kuwait and China may be the most the goal-shy hosts can expect to achieve.
Asian Cup groups
Group A: China, Kuwait, Qatar, Uzbekistan
Group B: Japan, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria
Group C: Australia, Bahrain, India, South Korea
Group D: Iran, Iraq, North Korea, United Arab Emirates
Asian Cup schedule
Group A 1. Qatar v Uzbekistan (1615 GMT)
Group A 2. Kuwait v China (1315)
Group B 3. Japan v Jordan (1315) 4. Saudi Arabia v Syria (1615)
Group C 5. India v Australia (1315) 6. South Korea v Bahrain (1615)
Group D 7. North Korea v UAE (1315) 8. Iraq v Iran (1615)
Group A 9. Uzbekistan v Kuwait (1315) 10. China v Qatar (1615)
Group B 11. Jordan v Saudi Arabia (1315), 12. Syria v Japan (1615)
Group C 13. Australia v South Korea (1315), 14. Bahrain v India (1615)
Group D 15. Iran v North Korea (1315), 16. UAE v Iraq (1615)
Group A 17. Qatar v Kuwait (1615), 18. China v Uzbekistan (1615)
Group B 19. Saudi Arabia v Japan (1315), 20. Jordan v Syria (1315)
Group C 21. South Korea v India (1315), 22. Australia v Bahrain (1315)
Group D 23. Iraq v North Korea (1615), 24. UAE v Iran (1615)
January 2125 Winner Group B v Runner-up A (1325), 26 Winner Group A v Runner-up B (1625)
27. Winner Group C v Runner-up D (1325), 28. Winner Group D v Runner-up C (1625)
January 2529. Winner match 25 v Winner match 28 (1325), 30 Winner match 26 v Winner match 27 (1625)
Third place match 31. Loser of match 29 v Loser of 30 (1700)
Winner of match 29 v Winner of 30 (1700)