For the third AFC Asian Cup tournament in a row, there will be at least 10 Arab teams at the continental showpiece to be played in Qatar. Thursday afternoon’s draw ceremony held at the Katara Opera House was a much anticipated, much changed and oft delayed event.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2023 tournament will be played in 2024 — a full five years after the 2019 finals were held in the UAE.
Arab News previewed the six groups that will commence play on Jan. 12, 2024, below:
Group A: Qatar, China, Lebanon, Tajikistan
Qatar can be reasonably happy with the way the draw unfolded as challengers to their crown were kept away. In 2019, Qatar had to contend with Saudi Arabia at the group stage and this time the most established opponents are China, who have been on a downward trajectory since the last edition due to the effect of the pandemic on the Chinese Super League.
One of four all-Arab matchups will kick off the tournament as Lebanon take on the hosts at the Al-Bayt Stadium. The two sides met four years ago in Al-Ain, the Gulf nation eventually winning 2-0, but only after a first half goal from Ali Hammam was controversially ruled out. Both teams are under new management with Carlos Queiroz and Aleksandar Ilic, respectively, and are facing something of a rebuild.
China have qualified to every Asian Cup finals since 1976 and reached the final of the competition in 1984 and 2004, but have suffered a fall from grace in recent years.
Touted as the next Asian power since their first — and only — World Cup appearance in 2002, the results have failed to measure up to expectations. A new manager is also at the helm, Aleksandar Jankovic, meaning three out of the four managers in this group have yet to lead their team in a competitive fixture.
Tajikistan are the sole debutants at the 2023 AFC Asian Cup and they were guided here by Croat Peter Segrt. Under his tutelage, Tajikistan’s young team have become a resolute unit that can cause problems on the break. Still, progress to the knockout stages might be a bridge too far for this group of upstarts.
Group B: Australia, Uzbekistan, Syria, India
Another group that features rematches from the 2019 tournament. Australia were not at their best against Syria (a 3-2 victory) and needed penalty kicks to see off Uzbekistan in the Round of 16. Almost five years into the Graham Arnold era, Australia are battle-tested and primed for a run following an historic World Cup performance.
The question is whether Arnold will stick with his veterans or infuse youth into the team that was the oldest by average age during Qatar 2022.
Uzbekistan’s World Cup qualification hopes were extinguished early following losses to Palestine in Jerusalem and Saudi Arabia in Tashkent. From the ashes of that campaign, the team has found an identity under Srecko Katenac. The former Slovenia and Iraq manager has built his attack around Spezia striker Eldor Shomurodov. In spite of indifferent form in Serie A, Shomurodov has stepped up to meet Katenac’s challenge — wearing the captain’s armband and scoring 12 goals in his last 12 appearances with the national team. A single goal is all he needs to surpass Maxim Shatskikh as his nation’s record goalscorer.
Qatar 2023 will be Syria’s sixth appearance at an Asian Cup. In five previous appearances, the Eagles of Qasioun have never successfully managed to qualify for the knockout stage. The national team has been led by eight different managers since Ayman Al-Hakeem guided them to within a goalpost of a World Cup playoff spot in 2017. Hector Cuper, fresh off antagonizing fans in Egypt, Uzbekistan and DR Congo, will be tasked with getting a tune out of a talented side headlined by the two Omars — Khirbin and Al-Somah.
India will be stark outsiders in this group and will be heavily dependent on 39-year-old Sunil Chhetri for goal production.
Group C: Iran, UAE, Palestine, Hong Kong
This group features the losing semifinalists from the 2019 edition. UAE have not been the same since a 4-0 humiliation in Abu Dhabi at the hands of Qatar. The head of the FA has recently resigned and the current manager, Rodolfo Arrubarrenna, did not attend the draw ceremony, fueling rumors of his imminent departure.
UAE have cycled through five different managers since the last Asian Cup. Bert van Marwijk was sacked twice during that time period. There are no quick fixes for Eyal Zayed. A golden generation delivered at the Asian Cup, reaching two semifinals and losing to the eventual champion in 2015 and 2019. In the end, the big prize, a return to the FIFA World Cup for the first time since 1990, was not achieved and now the team is in urgent need of a rebuild.
The Emirati FA opted to naturalize Caio Canedo, Fabio Lima, and Sebastian Tagliabue to add extra firepower to the attack during World Cup qualifying. All three of these players will be over the age of 30 come Qatar 2023 and with talisman Ali Mabkhout struggling for form, the future looks far from promising.
A veteran Iran team are still at the apex of their powers and will try to translate that into a first continental crown since 1976. The appointment of Amir Ghalenoei left followers of Team Melli somewhat underwhelmed but the side should be able to cruise to the knockouts with little drama, having not lost a group stage match since a 2-1 loss to Iraq in 1996.
Hong Kong returns to the fold for the first time since 1968 but with little star power and even less experience.
Palestine could be this tournament’s dark horse. The side has a 100 percent record in five competitive fixtures under Makram Dabboub, scoring 17 goals and conceding none in the process. In attack the scintillating Oday Dabbagh can wreak havoc on defenses as a provider or as a goalscorer. In tighter encounters they can rely on the services of one of Asia’s best goalkeepers, Rami Hamadi, who has racked up 20 clean sheets in just 36 appearances with Al-Fida’i.
Group D: Japan, Iraq, Vietnam, Indonesia
Iraqi fans are still in a state of euphoria following their Gulf Cup triumph in January. There seems to be an opportunity to weld together a team featuring promising locally based players with those from the diaspora under the guidance of Spaniard Jesus Casas.
The question is whether or not this represents yet another false dawn for the Lions of Mesopotamia. Since their debut in 1972, Iraq have successfully navigated the group stage of every tournament finals they have been a part of.
Success for Iraq will not be measured by simply getting out of the group, though. Iraq must find a way to prove that they can compete and beat elite nations such Japan — something they failed to do during their last World Cup qualification campaign.
While success in the Gulf Cup was a welcome sight for Iraqi fans, it was not easy, and the team needed every last strand of its home field advantage to emerge victorious against Oman in the final.
Grouped with the best team in Asia and tricky propositions in Indonesia and Vietnam, the group stage will be a litmus test of how far Iraq have come under Casas.
Group E: South Korea, Jordan, Bahrain, Malaysia
Over the last cycle, Bahrain won plaudits for being the most improved Arab team. Helio Sousa guided his side to the 2019 Gulf Cup and the 2019 West Asian Football Federation Championship. His team also famously beat Iran in World Cup qualification that year and perhaps could have gone on to achieve more had the pandemic not paused international football in Asia for 18 months.
Jordan have underachieved after winning their 2019 Asian Cup group by registering two spectacular wins against Australia and Syria. That disappointing form led the FA back to an old flame, Adnan Hamed. Neither team or tactician reached the heights individually that they did collectively. A dose of youth has been injected into the side, especially in attack, where talisman Musa Al-Taamari can now rely on the services of Qatar-based duo Yazan Al-Naimat and Ali Olwan, in addition to Esperance playmaker Sharara.
Bahrain and Jordan should cause problems for Jurgen Klinsmann’s South Korea and the German’s lack of familiarity with Asian football could be badly exposed come January.
Malaysia will take heart from the fact that they pushed Bahrain to the limits in a 2-1 loss during the qualification phase. That said, this is the Harimau Malaya’s first successful qualification since 1980 and advancing from a tough group might be a tall order.
Group F: Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kyrgyzstan, Thailand
Herve Renard penned a contract extension following a famous 2-1 win over Argentina at the World Cup but had a change of heart when the opportunity to lead France at the Women’s World Cup and Paris Olympics presented itself. On paper, Saudi Arabia should be the favorites to win this group and advance deep into the tournament, but questions remain.
The team have no established number nine as a result of many Saudi Pro League teams using up their forward slots on expensive foreign talents. Goalkeeping remains a problem area as well, not aided by the fact that foreign stoppers are starting for the Kingdom’s elite clubs.
Most importantly, a new managerial appointment does not seem imminent and there is a growing feeling that interim manager Saad Al-Shehri will be given the chance to step up from the U-23s and audition for the role on a permanent basis.
Oman have been an overachieving unit throughout Branko Ivanovic’s tenure. A measure of revenge was gained against Saudi Arabia at the Gulf Cup for two narrow losses suffered at the hands of their neighbors during World Cup qualification. That Gulf Cup campaign ended in a heartbreaking extra time loss to Iraq in the final but Ivanovic has shown, both at the Gulf Cup and at the FIFA Arab Cup, his ability to prepare a team for a tournament.
Rounding out the group are teams that will need to improve before the tournament arrives. Kyrgyzstan recently parted ways with their manager of nine years, Aleksandr Krestinin, while Thailand, regarded as the best team in Southeast Asia, will need to overcome two Arab teams they have had sparse success against.