The 2024 Asian Cup is well underway and some of the groups have already wrapped up.
This is the 18th edition of the tournament, hosted by Qatar, and was scheduled to be held last summer but had to be moved. Qatar are also the defending champions having beaten Japan in the final five years ago.
Read on to find out which nations are the favourites to win the tournament, our wildcard picks and predictions, as well as the most exciting players who will be taking part.
Who are the favourites to lift the trophy?
*Odds correct as of 17:30 on January 10
- Manager: Hajime Moriyasu
- Best Asian Cup finish: Winners (1992, 2000, 2004, 2011)
- 2019 Asian Cup finish: Runners-up
The most-successful side in Asian Cup history, it has now been 13 years since Japan last lifted the trophy. They were runners up in the most recent tournament, beaten 3-1 by Qatar in the final, the first time they had made it to the showcase without winning. Including their maiden success in 1992, Japan have won four of the past eight Asian Cups, but they are now two tournaments without victory for the first time in that spell.
This time around, Japan are the slight favourites, entering the tournament on a nine-game winning streak that started in June and includes a 4-1 victory over Germany. Japan’s squad consists of players plying their trade across a variety of leagues, including three in the Premier League. Kaoru Mitoma of Brighton and Arsenal’s Takehiro Tomiyasu are joined by Liverpool’s Wataru Endo, who will captain Samurai Blue. After two games, Japan are second in their group and will definitely qualify for the knockout stages with at least a draw. Even defeat could still be enough, as the four best third-placed teams will go through and Japan would be in a good position on three points.
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South Korea (9/2)
- Manager: Jurgen Klinsmann
- Best Asian Cup finish: Winners (1956, 1960)
- 2019 Asian Cup finish: Quarter-finals
South Korea are one of the biggest nations in Asian football, and have some of its brightest stars. But they haven’t performed on the big stage. Two-time winners of the Asian Cup, South Korea won the first two editions of the tournament, and haven’t tasted success since 1960. Since that last win, South Korea have reached the final four times, most recently in 2015 when they were beaten by hosts Australia.
After their last 16 exit from the World Cup last winter, South Korea saw Paulo Bento leave his role as manager, with Jurgen Klinsmann coming in to replace him. The German went winless in his first five games in charge, but then won seven in a row, a run only ended with a draw against Jordan in their second group game. But they are in a solid position to qualify for the knockout stages, on four points from two games and facing Malaysia next.
- Manager: Graham Arnold
- Best Asian Cup finish: Winners (2015)
- 2019 Asian Cup finish: Quarter-finals
In football terms, Australia haven’t been an Asian nation for too long, making the switch from the Oceania confederation in 2006. Since then, Australia have been ever-present at the Asian Cup and have at least made the quarter-finals on all four occasions. There were quarter-final exits in 2007 and 2019, but sandwiched in the middle were a pair of final appearances.
The first came in 2011 when they were beaten by Japan in extra-time, but four years later they finally got their hands on the Asian Cup, beating South Korea 2-1. Australia’s main problem at this tournament may be their lack of goals, with Mitchell Duke the top scorer in their squad with 12 goals. Defender Harry Souttar is next up with 10, though Jackson Irvine scored twice in three games as Australia finished top of Group B with seven points from their three games.
- Manager: Tintin Marquez
- Best Asian Cup finish: Winners (2019)
- 2019 Asian Cup finish: Winners
Qatar have really stepped up as a footballing nation lately, growing as part of their project surrounding the 2022 World Cup. In the build up to that tournament, which they of course hosted, Qatar won the 2019 Asian Cup with relative ease. They won all seven of their games, scoring 19 goals and conceding just once to Japan in the final (which they won 3-1).
Qatar are hosts of this tournament too, and the reason it was postponed. Originally scheduled for last summer, the Asian Cup had to be moved to January because of the heat in Qatar and the fact that Qatar were taking part in the 2023 CONCACAF Gold Cup. It was another comfortable start to the latest competition, with Qatar winning all three of their group stages to qualify for the last 16.
Saudi Arabia (15/2)
- Manager: Roberto Mancini
- Best Asian Cup finish: Winners (1984, 1988, 1996)
- 2019 Asian Cup finish: Round of 16
There seems to be a big gulf in class between the top Asian teams and the rest, and the rest don’t really make waves consistently. Of the best, there are a few levels, and Saudi Arabia are among those on the lower level right now who could provide a shock result. No team has been an Asian Cup finalist more than Saudi Arabia, who have won three and lost three of their final appearances. Their most recent success came in 1996, the third of three titles in four tournaments.
Saudi Arabia are in a new era, under Roberto Mancini, who left the Italian national team to replace Herve Renard after he took over the French women’s national side. They needed an injury-time winner to complete their comeback against Oman in their opening game, but were more comfortable in their 2-0 win over Kyrgyzstan which secured Saudi Arabia’s spot in the last 16.
Top five most exciting players
- Country: South Korea
- Club: Tottenham
- Caps: 118
There were some worries when Harry Kane left Tottenham as to how they’d replace his goals. But Son Heung-min has stepped up, which can only be a good thing for South Korea. The 31-year-old has scored 12 goals in 20 Premier League games for Tottenham, which is currently only bettered by Erling Haaland and Mohamed Salah.
More of Son’s games for Tottenham came through the middle, rather than on the left, which will serve as good practice for his central role with South Korea. He got off the mark against Jordan last time out, opening the scoring from the spot in the 2-2 draw.
- Country: Iran
- Club: Porto
- Caps: 78
In the summer, Mehdi Taremi was being touted for a move to Arsenal, who were in need of an actual striker capable of linking up with his teammates. The Iranian remained at Porto and hasn’t had the greatest of seasons in front of goal, netting three times in 15 league matches. However, he has proven he can do it when it matters scoring two and providing two assists for Porto in the Champions League as they qualified for the last 16.
For Iran, the striker has 44 goals in 78 caps, with only Sardar Azmoun (45) netting more among the current squad. Taremi has scored 13 goals in 15 games for Iran since the start of 2023, but started the Asian Cup on the wing to accommodate Azmoun.
- Country: Japan
- Club: AZ
- Caps: 11
AZ Alkmaar are fighting for European football in the Eredivisie this season, and Yukinara Sugawara is proving to be an important part of that side. The Japanese full-back has started all 16 of AZ’s league games, providing four assists so far. He’s created 37 chances, the fifth-highest in the Eredivisie, and a league-high 12 Big Chances. Sugawara is also third for Expected Assists in the Eredivisie on 5.41, with an xA from open play of 4.07.
He’s only played 11 times for Japan, but 10 of those appearances have been since the start of last year, including both of their Asian Cup games so far.
- Country: Australia
- Club: St. Pauli
- Caps: 63
Perhaps noticed more for his facial hair, ponytail and off-field work, it’s worth remembering that Jackson Irvine is a very capable midfielder. Irvine is one of the consistent starters in Australia’s XI, guaranteed to be on the pitch if there is anything riding on a game. He currently plays his club football for 2. Bundesliga side St. Pauli, and was directly involved in seven goals before departing for the Asian Cup. And Irvine was on the scoresheet against both India and Syria, the latter the only goal in a 1-0 win.
- Country: Qatar
- Club: Al-Duhail
- Caps: 99
He struggled in the World Cup, but Almoez Ali certainly knows where the back of the net is in the Asian Cup. When Qatar won the trophy four years ago, Ali scored just under half of their goals. He finished as the top scorer of the tournament, with nine in total, five more than any other player. He also won the Player of the Tournament and was named in the Team of the Tournament, and will be key to Qatar’s hopes this year. So it came as no surprise when he opened his account in their first game.
South Korea (9/2)
Although it has been a long time since they last tasted victory, it feels like this is the year for South Korea. They have their key players in good form, including Son Heung-min and Hwang Hee-chan. South Korea should get over the line in their group but will need to improve slightly in the knockout stages.
There are better scorers at the Asian Cup this summer, but with us backing South Korea to go all the way, it makes sense that Son Heung-min would have the chance to score the most goals. The Tottenham man has 41 goals for South Korea including four in his last four games.
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Qatar still perfect
For hosts Qatar, this has been another excellent tournament so far. Five years ago, Qatar won their first Asian Cup thanks to seven wins from seven, 19 goals scored and just one conceded. It can be tough to retain a title, but they’ve just picked up from where they left off. Qatar ended the group stage perfect with three wins from three, scoring five and they’re still yet to concede.
You have to go back to 2015 for Qatar’s last defeat at the Asian Cup, when they finished bottom of their group without a point, losing to United Arab Emirates, Iran and Bahrain.
Tajikistan make history
Of the 24 teams in the tournament this year, just one were making their Asian Cup debut. That was Tajikistan, who were placed in what appeared to be a tricky group alongside Qatar, China and Lebanon. They drew against China in their opening game and lost 1-0 to Qatar, before trailing 1-0 to Lebanon with just over 10 minutes left of their final game.
Tajikistan’s tournament looked to be ending with a whimper, but boy did they turn things around. Goals in the final 10 minutes from Parvizdzhon Umarbayev and Nuriddin Khamrokulov sealed the 2-1 win for Tajikistan and second place in the group, extending their tournament into the last 16.
Syria end long wait
Another team making their debut in the last 16 will be Syria, but this one has been a long-time coming. Before this year’s tournament, Syria had fallen at the group stage six times, including in 1980 and 1988 when they won two group matches — and the tournament consisted of just two groups of five.
But this time, just one win was enough to do it (as well as a draw) with four points sealing a spot as one of the best third-placed teams.
China’s freefall continues
China have never won the Asian Cup, but they are two-time runners up and have made the final four on four other occasions. They’re a name you grew used to seeing in the knockout stages, and they had reached the quarter-finals in each of the past two tournaments, after back-to-back group exits in 2007 and 2011.
It was inconceivable that they wouldn’t make it out of the group this year. But not only are they out, but they have been dumped out. Although it needed a bit of bad luck with Tajikistan’s late winner, China didn’t score a single goal in the group, with two goalless draws and a 1-0 defeat to Qatar. It was the first time they had ever failed to score at the Asian Cup, and their lowest-ever points return.
India stumble out
Talking of teams not having scored, India stumbled out of the Asian Cup, with three defeats from their three games, conceding six with none in reply. Although not much will have been excepted of India, this was a tough tournament to take for Indian fans, who were left bemoaning a lack of direction in the coaching and tactics, wasting some good emerging talent.