By sportswriter Wang Haoyu
BEIJING, Jan. 2 (Xinhua) -- Australia, who joined the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in 2006, have changed the landscape of the sport in the region, especially when they lifted their first Asian Cup on home soil four years ago in 2015.
Now, the traditional powerhouses of Asian football like Japan, Iran and South Korea are eyeing to regain their glory in the upcoming 2019 AFC Asian Cup, which will take place from January 5 to February 1 in the United Arab Emirates.
It is not easy for the Socceroos to retain their title after the Asian Cup is to be expanded from 16 to 24 teams for the first time.
The defending champions face a number of injury problems heading into the competition. Key playmaker Aaron Mooy, winger Martin Boyle and rising star Daniel Arzani all have been ruled out due to knee injuries. Another otherwise guaranteed starter Matthew Leckie, who has been troubled by a hamstring injury, joined the squad in Dubai, but whether he is fit for the games remains in doubt.
Coach Graham Arnold will also have to find the right player who can carry the team at the critical moment following the retirement of their leading goal-scorer Tim Cahill and long-serving skipper Mile Jedinak after 2018 World Cup.
Arnold has picked eight strikers into his side, yet it does not seem that they can fill the gap left by Cahill, who netted 50 times for Australia in 108 matches.
Japan, the most successful country in Asian Cup history, are considered as the favorites to take the throne from Australia.
The four-time champions (1992, 2000, 2004, 2011) had an impressive performance in Russia, where they lost a thrilling quarterfinal to Belgium 3-2.
After Keisuke Honda, Makoto Hasebe and Gotoku Sakai announced their retirement, Japan's coach Hajime Moriyasu started to built a fresh-looking team by leaving Leicester City striker Shinji Okazaki and Borussia Dortmund playmaker Shinji Kagawa out of his 23-man squad.
Thus, Europe-based talents Takumi Minamino, Shoya Nakajima and Ritsu Doan will have the opportunity to light up the biggest stage in Asia for the Samurai Blue.
"We have selected many inexperienced players this time, they want to build a new national side and fight for the title. I picked the team with this in mind," Moriyasu said.
Iran, the top-ranked (29) Asian team in FIFA, were stopped in the quarterfinals in the past three Asian Cups. With quality in every position on the field, the Team Melli are looking forward to ending their 43-year trophy drought.
"Iran can make history in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup because we take advantage of one of the best generations we have ever had. Four years ago, we were knocked out of the Asian Cup in penalty shootout against Iraq but this time we are determined to win the title," Iran winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh said.
Sardar Azmoun, known as Iran's Messi, came back from the shock retirement last summer. The 24-year-old will lead the 23-man line-up, of which 18 went to the 2018 World Cup.
South Korea have ensured top-3 finish in each of the last three Asian Cups. However, they are in agony of never touching the trophy after winning the first two Cups in 1956 and 1960.
The Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-min is to carry South Korea's hope to put an end to their 59-year waiting.
The 26-year-old has had eight goals and five assists in the Premier League this season and established himself as a key player in the attacking line at the White Hart Lane.
But Son has to sit out the first two group matches, which makes South Korea to face more difficulties during the group stage.
And China will be the biggest challenge for South Korea in the group stage and maybe one of the dark horses in 2019 Asian Cup.
The Team Dragon, the oldest with an average age of 28.7 years old, that managed only three wins out of nine official games in 2018, are not expected to be underestimated by the other 23 teams in the tournament, especially when they are led by Marcello Lippi, one of the most established coaches in football world.
Struggling to score goals is the biggest challenge for Lippi's side.
Wu Lei seems to be the key to solve the problem, after he has scored 27 times to win the Golden Boot of the Chinese Super League last season, becoming the first local player to claim the award since Li Jinyu in 2007.
Lippi is reported to step down after the Asian Cup, can the legendary Italian coach have an happy ending with Chinese football? Let's wait and see.