Son set to light up Asian Cup as Qatar takes center stage again

By AFP   January 10, 2024 | 08:12 pm PT
Son set to light up Asian Cup as Qatar takes center stage again
Japan's French coach Philippe Troussier (C), now managing Vietnam, is splashed with water as he holds the trophy aloft after Japan defeated Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the final of the Asian Cup in Beirut, October 29, 2000. Others are unidentified. Photo by Asia2000 Media Committee/AFP
The Asian Cup begins on Friday with defending champions Qatar the hosts, Japan favorites and Son Heung-min's South Korea vowing to win the title for the first time in 64 years.

The 24 teams spanning Australia to Palestine will battle for regional glory over the next four weeks, culminating in the final at the 88,000-capacity Lusail Stadium on Feb. 10.

It will take something special to beat the last big game at Lusail -- the World Cup final 13 months ago when an Argentina side inspired by Lionel Messi defeated France on penalties.

The 18th edition of the Asian Cup was supposed to have been held last summer in China but was moved to World Cup host Qatar because of China's Covid-19 rules.

Qatar will mostly use stadiums that staged World Cup matches, a notable absentee being Stadium 974, the temporary arena made partly of shipping containers.

In the lead-up to the World Cup, the Gulf state came under intense scrutiny over its human rights record and treatment of migrant workers.

Rights groups say little has changed since, something Qatar disputes.

There has been no such outcry ahead of the Asian Cup.

Japan vow to erase 'frustration'

Qatar won plaudits for its organization of the World Cup but the team flopped on the pitch, their three straight defeats the worst performance of any World Cup host.

That lingering pain will motivate them in the defense of their Asian crown, but Carlos Queiroz was fired as coach only last month, giving replacement Tintin Marquez little time to prepare.

"I know the players, I know my mentality and I know... my idea for playing," said the Spaniard, who coached Qatar club side Al Wakrah for six years before taking over the national team.

Qatar open the tournament against Lebanon at Lusail Stadium.

There are six groups of four, the top two from each reaching the last 16, along with the four best third-placed teams.

Japan, defeated 3-1 by Qatar in the 2019 final in the UAE, look the team to beat and are the most successful side in Asian Cup history with four titles.

Japan have fond memories of Qatar, having stunned Germany and Spain in the group stage of the World Cup before losing to Croatia on penalties in the last 16.

Hajime Moriyasu's team have enjoyed a strong year since, losing only once in 12 matches and winning 4-1 in Germany in a friendly.

Moriyasu named Kaoru Mitoma in his squad despite the Brighton winger suffering an ankle injury and said that Japan are determined to erase the "frustration" of their 2019 final loss.

All or nothing for Klinsmann

South Korea, Iran, Australia and Saudi Arabia -- all of whom played at the 2022 World Cup and are former Asian champions -- are also teams to watch.

In Tottenham Hotspur attacker Son, South Korea have the best player in Asia and a world-class performer who is enjoying his football again under Spurs manager Ange Postecoglou.

South Korean fans were skeptical about the appointment nearly a year ago of legendary German striker Jurgen Klinsmann, given his patchy record as a coach.

But after a slow start his side have hit their stride, their last competitive match a 3-0 World Cup qualifying win in China with Son scoring twice and setting up the third.

The 59-year-old Klinsmann has said anything other than winning the Asian Cup for the first time since 1960 will be a failure.

"It's 64 years -- 64 years is a long time for Korea. It's about time that we get this done," said Klinsmann.

There will be extra interest in how Saudi Arabia -- coached by the Italian Roberto Mancini -- get on following an influx of foreign stars into their domestic football led by Cristiano Ronaldo.

The Palestinian team face an uphill task to emerge from a group containing Iran, United Arab Emirates and Hong Kong, with their minds on the war in Gaza, in which some players have lost loved ones.

"Everyone is glued to the news, before and after training, be it on the bus or at the hotel," coach Makram Daboub said.

This will be Palestine's third time at the Asian Cup and they are chasing a first victory after failing to win any of their six matches so far.

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