5 January ~ His club are sponsored by a Thai brewery, but Everton manager David Moyes is clearly not a fan of the Asian Cup. Specifically Moyes is troubled by the loss of talismanic midfielder Tim Cahill for the three-week tournament, which kicks off in Doha on January 7 with a clash between hosts Qatar and highly fancied Uzbekistan. Should Australia reach the final in only their second Asian Cup appearance, Cahill will miss several key fixtures for the Toffees, including a trip to Anfield for the Merseyside derby.
Lucas Neill predicted Australia would win the 2007 tournament undefeated, but an embarrassing quarter-final exit means the Socceroos have sensibly avoided making such bold proclamations this time around. Australia are wary of a group-stage showdown with South Korea, who remain one of the favourites to lift the cup despite the absence of Monaco striker Park Chu-young. A goal celebration gone wrong cost Park his participation in Asia’s premier international tournament, when the young striker bizarrely injured his knee after scoring against Sochaux. Captain Park Ji-sung now takes on more goal-scoring responsibility than ever, and the Manchester United midfielder is desperate to win in what is expected to be his international swansong.
North Korea will again lean heavily on Bochum striker Jong Tae-se – he of the famous teary-eyed anthem during the World Cup – but rumours of widespread discontent within the squad mean they are unlikely to be a force in Qatar. Instead it’s East Asian rivals Japan, now coached by Italian veteran Alberto Zaccheroni, whom many expect to challenge.
The one-time Milan manager has a star-studded squad to call upon, with all eyes on CSKA Moscow's Keisuke Honda as he continues to attract interest from a host of English clubs. Borussia Dortmund starlet Shinji Kagawa has also been called up after missing out on Japan’s World Cup squad, and if the pair can click then Japan have a real chance of a fourth Asian Cup trophy.
Defending champions Iraq stunned the world by winning the title four years ago, but they’ve been drawn in a tough group and an opening clash against regional rivals Iran could be one of the early highlight fixtures. Iran are misfiring in front of goal and struggling for self-belief, and they haven’t been helped by the news coach Afshin Ghotbi has already agreed to take over at Japanese club Shimizu S-Pulse once the tournament concludes.
West Asian football in general has been in the doldrums since the last Asian Cup, but Iran and traditional heavyweights Saudi Arabia look the most likely to challenge in the relatively hospitable confines of Qatar. The hosts themselves will be looking to turn in a credible performance, not least due to the global media spotlight thrust upon them after FIFA’s decision to award them hosting rights to the 2022 World Cup.
Qatar are unlikely to launch a giant-killing run all the way to the final, but whatever happens to French coach Bruno Metsu’s side, the unpredictable nature of Asian football should ensure an absorbing tournament nonetheless. Mike Tuckerman