Iraq's Mohannad Ali and Kyrgyzstan's Anton Zemljanukhin. Image Credit: Supplied

Group C: South Korea, China, Kyrgyzstan, Philippines

SOUTH KOREA

Coach: Paulo Bento
Star player: Ki Sung-yueng
Previous appearances: 12
Best finish: Champions in 1956 and 1960
Last time out: Runners-up, 2015World ranking: 53

Perhaps one of the most fancied sides in Asia, South Korea created quite an impact during 2018. First they sent defending champions Germany packing, thanks to their 2-0 win in their last Group F match at the 2018 Fifa World Cup, and then four months later they won the Asian Games gold medal in Indonesia. But this meant that the Koreans will now have to begin the event without the services of their star striker Son Heung-min, who was released by Tottenham for national duty in the Asian Games so that their player could evade compulsory military duty. The team have been in fine form while going unbeaten in the seven friendlies they have played so far — including a goalless draw in their last game against Saudi Arabia in Abu Dhabi on December 31. Portuguese coach Paulo Bento will now be looking forward to continuing this momentum.

CHINA

Coach: Marcello Lippi
Star player: Gao Lin
Previous appearances: 11
Best finish: Runners-up in 1984 and 2004
Last time out: Seventh, 2015
World ranking: 76

Considered as one of the many sleeping giants in Asia, China will be keen to give their coach Marcello Lippi the most fitting farewell. The experienced Italian coach has been in charge for a little more than two years and he has done enough to ensure China live up to expectations. For a start, Lippi has totally revamped the squad and that has brought in a sort of stability that the Chinese supporters will be looking at as they take on opponents such as South Korea, Philippines and Kyrgyzstan. China have been runners-up in this competition on two previous occasions — 1984 and 2004 — and one shouldn’t be surprised if they do something big before Lippi gives up his charge after this tournament.

KYRGYZSTAN

Coach: Aleksandr Krestinin
Star player: Anton Zemljanukhin
Previous appearances: Debutants
Best finish: None
Last time out: N/A
World ranking: 142

One of the most significant impact in Kyrgyz football was the arrival of Russian coach Sergey Dvoryankov. He made a significant progress by calling and naturalising a number of foreign players into the national team including Ghana’s David Tetteh, Elijah Ari and Daniel Tagoe. Further, Cameroon’s Claude Maka Kum and Germany’s Viktor Maier, Vitalij Lux, Viktor Kelm and Edgar Bernhardt have given the national side even more success. The immediate effect has been a range of strong results for the White Falcons with their most notable one being their cherished win against Tajikistan during the 2018 Fifa World Cup qualifying. Under another Russian manager, Aleksandr Krestinin, Kyrgyzstan has qualified for the first time-ever to the AFC Asian Cup since independence.

PHILIPPINES

Coach: Sven-Goran Eriksson
Star player: Phil Younghusband
Previous appearances: Debutants
Best finish: None
Last time out: N/A
World ranking: 116

The Azkals will be relying on the brotherly duo of James and Phil Younghusband as they make their debut at the Asian Cup. Though technically this is a first-ever appearance, the Philippines have in the past withdrawn from at least three editions mostly due to political reasons. They did not participate in 1964 when the tournament was held in Israel, in 1972 when Thailand hosted it and then in 1976 due to the uncertainty in Iran. However, this time the Philippines have one huge opportunity to salvage a sense of respectability as they put their faith in their new coach Sven-Goran Eriksson to see how far they can advance from Group C.

Group D: Iran, Iraq, Vietnam, Yemen

IRAN

Coach: Carlos Queiroz
Star player: Karim Ansarifard
Previous appearances: 14
Best finish: Champions in 1968, 1972, 1976
Last time out: Quarter-finals, 2015
World ranking: 29

One of the most successful teams in Asian football, Iran have been struggling to find form after their hat-trick of titles between 1968 and 1976. After that, the Iranians have come up short on four occasions while finishing in third place at the 1980, 1988, 1996 and 2004 editions. However, the squad look to have hit a stable note after the takeover by Portuguese Carlos Queiroz, a one-time assistant to Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid. Between December 2014 and 2018, the Iran team have remained the highest-ranked in Asia, thus representing the longest continuous period of time a team has been top of the continent in the rankings. Talent has never been short in Iran and the UAE’s neighbours will this time be all out to prove they are the best in Asia.

IRAQ

Coach: Srecko Katanec
Star player: Mohannad Ali
Previous appearances: 8
Best finish: Champions in 2007
Last time out: Fourth, 2015
World ranking: 88

Iraq’s lone title against all odds in 2007 is one of the most memorable chapters in Asian football. But, after that success the team — that once enjoyed its highest ranking of 39 — has gradually slipped down the pecking order to its current No. 88. Dubbed ‘the Lions of Mesopotamia’, Iraq seem to have rediscovered their taste for consistent results following the takeover by one-time UAE coach Srecko Katanec. However, internal strife seems to be a huge bother for the squad as they strive to shine on the biggest continental stage and replicate their feat of 2007 once again.

VIETNAM

Coach: Park Hang-seo
Star player: Nguyen Quang Hai
Previous appearances: 3
Best finish: Fourth, in 1956 and 1960
Last time out: Quarter-finals, 2007
World ranking: 100

The past two months have not just been a busy time for Vietnam. They have also been indicative of the progress chart of the national side. In November itself, Vietnam maintained a clean record with three successive wins — a 3-0 result against Laos, a 2-0 win over Malaysia and a 3-0 thrashing of Cambodia — to clearly prove their resurgence on to the big stage. With teen star Nguyen Quang Hai proving his effectiveness in front of goal, coach Park Hang-seo will be looking at Vietnam to scale greater heights on the continental stage as they take on Yemen, Iraq and Iran in Group D.

YEMEN

Coach: Jan Kocian
Star player: Ali Al Nono
Previous appearances: Nil
Best finish: First time qualification
Last time out: Qualified, 2019
World ranking: 135

Jan Kocian’s job with Yemen is two-fold. Not only has the Slovak coach put up with a string of challenges off-field, but he has had to also ensure his players deliver consistently on it. Since 2011, the world has watched in grim hope as the country underwent a revolution and that was followed by the civil war since 2015 that has left the team with very little time and will for preparation. And yet, Yemen have managed to create their own history while qualifying for the continental competition for the first time ever. Their coach Jan Kocian will be only too keen to ensure his young set of boys migrate to the next stage and become men.