Asian Cup 2019: 5 most exciting group stage matches
The 2019 AFC Asian Cup kicks off on 5th January in Abu Dhabi when hosts UAE face Bahrain at the Zayed Sports City Stadium. The 24-team tournament will follow the same format as the 2016 UEFA European Championship in which the top two teams from all six groups will advance and the top four from the six third-placed sides will also qualify for the knockout stages.
The 2016 Euros witnessed a group stage in which teams were trying to draw matches to advance to the knockout stages. While we can see the same technique in use applied by some defensive coaches, we are almost guaranteed for an exciting time in this tournament due to the following fixtures.
#5 India VS UAE
India have been drawn in Group A alongside hosts UAE and would be facing them on 10th January at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi.
The south-asian country, ranked 97, have a stable starting XI but has not won all their matches in recent memory as they drew 0-0 with China, Oman and lost to Jordan who are ranked lower than them. The Gulf nation, on the other hand are ranked 79, have much better preparations for the tournament and will also have the backing of the home crowd to support them.
The match is being touted as the battle between the two most experienced forwards in the tournament with Sunil Chhetri (65 goals in 103 international matches) coming up against Al Mabkhout (44 goals in 65 international matches).
Apart from facing each other, the two teams will be facing Thailand and Bahrain who are both ranked lower than UAE and the Blue Tigers as well.
#4 Australia VS Syria
Australia and Syria have been drawn in Group B alongside Jordan and Palestine. While the defending champions are the clear favourites to top the group, Syria is expected to trump Jordan for the second place in the group which guarantees qualification to the knockout stages.
The most famous names in the tie are Omar Al Somah from Syria and Australia's Robbie Kruse and Matt Ryan. This is the first major tournament Australia is going to be a part of post Tim Cahill's retirement.
Al Somah is one of the most lethal strikers in Asia as of now and has been playing for the Saudi club Al Ahli for the past four years. Matt Ryan is a first choice goalkeeper for Premier League club Brighton and Hove Albion and Robbie Kruse plies his trade in Germany at VFL Bochum.
The Socceroos will play Syria on 15th January at the Sheikh Khalifa International Stadium in Al Ain.
#3 Japan VS Oman
Japan, Oman, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have been drawn in the Group F. Japanese national team, four-time winners of this tournament in the last 30 years, will be the obvious favourites to qualify to the Round of 16 with Oman (ranked 82) and Uzbekistan (ranked 95) expected to fight for the second place.
Maya Yoshida who turns out for Premier League club Southampton will be captaining the Blue Samurai in their quest for the fifth Asian Cup since 1992. The Japanese won everyone's hearts at the 2018 FIFA World Cup when they almost knocked out Belgium from the world cup in the Round of 16.
Oman, holders of the Arabian Cup, would be looking to improve on their dismal record at the Asian Cup as they have only 2 wins in 9 matches in this tournament.
Japan will play Oman on 13th January at the ZSC stadium in Abu Dhabi.
#2 China VS South Korea
China, South Korea, Kyrgyzstan and Philippines have been drawn together in Group C. With South Korea, ranked 53, the absolute favourites to advance, China (ranked 76) and Kyrgyzstan (ranked 91) would also be hoping to qualify for the knockout stages.
While China have been producing players in their own league back home, Korea will be led by one of the most in-form forwards in the Premier League this season, Son Heung Min. Though, he won't be available for Korea's first two matches but will fly out after facing Manchester United to face the mighty Chinese and the subsequent knockout fixtures the Koreans are expected to play.
South Korea face the Red Dragons on 16th January at the Al Nahyan Stadium in Abu Dhabi.
#1 Iran VS Iraq
The two neighbours are poles apart in geographical and political stability but aren't too far in footballing sense and ability.
Iran have had the better share of wins in head to head as they have won 14 of the 26 matches, drawing 5 and losing the other 7 matches. 2 of those 7 losses have come in the last two matches as Iraq have the upper hand if we consider the last 3 matches played between the nations.
The 2007 champions are currently ranked 88 while Iran, three-time champions are the best-ranked side in the tournament at 29.
The two group favourites will face each other on 16th January at the Rashid Al-Maktoum Stadium in Dubai.
Honorable mentions: Iran VS Vietnam, Qatar VS Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan VS Oman, India VS Thailand