It's coming home: Who are the favourites to win the AFC Asian Cup 2023?
The latest edition of the AFC Asian Cup is set to kick off this Friday with ten out of the region’s twelve nations participating in the 24-team tournament.
Arab teams have won the competition six times since the competition was first held in 1956. Hosts Qatar were unlikely winners in 2019 breaking a twelve-year drought for the region.
The New Arab Examines the title hopes of each nation.
By virtue of being hosts and holders, it is hard not to classify Al-Annabi as one of the favourites to win the 2023 AFC Asian Cup — and with a winning start on Friday, beating Lebanon 3-0, the possibility seems high.
However, all other factors are trending downwards for Qatar; 2019 seems like a flash in the pan- perhaps the Qatari players were motivated by playing in the United Arab Emirates at a time when their country had been blockaded by their Gulf neighbours.
Now, nearly five years on, the memories of that maiden Asian Cup victory are nothing but a bygone memory. The team fluffed its lines in their home World Cup. The three losses were bad enough but the indelible memory was the lack of energy brought to the event by the team. That was matched by their fans who abandoned the stands well before the final whistle.
Many of the same players return for a title defence but the manager has changed three times since the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Tintin Marquez replaced Carlos Queiroz last month meaning Qatar will need to adapt quickly.
Placed in a relatively easy group with China, Lebanon and Tajikistan a path to the quarter-final is relatively straightforward if Al-Annabi tops the group.
The Green Falcons return to the scene of the famous upset of Argentina. This time, though, the Saudis are one of the favourites and are expected to make a deep run at the tournament.
Saudi Arabia’s pedigree in Asian Football is well known. They have participated in six World Cups, they have won the Asian Cup on three occasions and were losing finalists on three other occasions.
It is worth noting that Saudi Arabia has not won a knockout stage game since the 2007 edition — twice falling out at the group stages.
Euro 2020 winning Manager Roberto Mancini is now at the helm of the squad with the dual task of maintaining the side’s status as one of Asia’s elite while also integrating younger players into the first team.
The influx of expensive foreign signings to the Saudi Pro League has proven a double-edged sword for the national team. On the one hand, Roberto Mancini’s charges get to test themselves against top talent every week.
On the other hand, the league hardly features any Saudi players in the number 9 position. A lack of an out-and-out goalscorer could prove to be the team’s undoing at the latter stages of the tournament.
Against all odds and with the background of war and occupation Iraq were crowned Asian Cup champions in 2007. Ultimately, that generation would fail to qualify for a World Cup but it did help inspire a new generation of footballers in the Iraqi diaspora.
Iraq cleaned house following their failure to qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. In came former Spain assistant Jesus Casas, and out went many of the old guard.
Half of the 26 players in Iraq’s squad were handed a debut in his brief 13-month tenure. As a result, The Lions of Mesopotamia are the youngest Arab side in the competition with an average age of 26.
Jesus Casas’s reign got off to a fantastic start when the team lifted the Gulf Cup in January 2023 on home soil.
With 12 players plying their trade in Europe and a further five in Asia’s top leagues, there is plenty of quality in Iraq’s team. The question is whether or not the team will be ready to go toe-to-toe with Asia’s elite.
Japan lies in wait in the group and a potential second-round match against the Korean Republic will also determine if Iraq can make a run.
United Arab Emirates
Semifinalists at the last two Asian Cups the United Arab Emirates are very much embarking on a new path.
A Golden Generation led by manager Mahdi Ali could never find the breakthrough in World Cup qualifying and the decision to cut ties with him led to a vicious cycle of chopping and changing managers. Since Ali’s departure in 2017, nine different managers have led the nation.
The Golden Generation has long departed with only Ali Mabkhout still around and banging in goals. In their stead, the UAE has resorted to naturalizing players and Caio Canedo and Fabio Lima will be the names counted upon in attack in addition to the aforementioned Mabkhout.
A quarter-final finish could be well within reach for this new-look UAE side.
Oman has no recognised superstar and no players playing in Europe. That said, the team consistently finds a way to punch above its weight and is entering its fourth year under the stewardship of Croat Branko Ivankovic.
A veteran side that prides itself on launching blistering counterattacks Oman might be better suited to playing teams that aim to dominate possession.
If Al-Ahmar can make the most of their chances in front of goal then a first knockout stage win could certainly be on the cards.
Is Jordan a team in crisis? Or one that is about to come together at the right time? A flashy managerial appointment was made in the summer with Houcine Ammouta’s expansive style of play replacing the effective but turgid Adnan Hamad
The results have not been kind. A single win in the Moroccan’s first nine games in charge leaves him with few supporters in the Hashemite Kingdom. Ammouta’s style of play was supposed to get the best out of Montpellier’s Musa Al-Tamari and his fellow attackers Yazan Al-Naimat and Ali Olwan. So far, there has been scant evidence of that.
Jordan has become accustomed to success at the Asian Cup and there is a sense that they will get out of the group just like they did in the 2019, 2011, and 2004 editions.
Qatar 2023 will be Palestine’s third straight Asian Cup finals appearance; the team will have to contend with the ongoing war and genocide in Gaza.
The team has since shown great resilience in being able to compartmentalize and focus on their matches and were impressive in a narrow 1-0 loss to Australia in World Cup qualification.
If Palestine are to win a game and get out of the group for the first time their hopes will rest on the tandem of goalkeeper Rami Hamadi and Charleroi forward Oday Dabbagh. Al-Fida’i will be able to count on raucous support in the stands which might just give them an added boost on the pitch.
WORK TO DO
Of the three teams in this category, Bahrain is the one most likely to figure things out before the tournament starts. In March, the Bahrain Football Association dismissed Helio Sousa who had lifted the 2019 WAFF Championship and the 2019 Gulf Cup while also navigating passage to a sixth successive Asian Cup.
Juan Antonio Pizzi is in a similar situation to Jordan’s Houcine Ammouta — trying to implement an intricate attacking style. Unfortunately, for the Argentine, he has far fewer tools at his disposal.
Three managers in three months and the oldest side of the tournament. If Lebanon is to have any chance of progressing it will most likely be the result of other sides in Group A tripping over their own shoelaces.
Lebanon drafted in Miodrag Radulovic — manager at the last Asian Cup — to rescue them. The Cedars will be defensively solid but the question fans are asking is: where will the goals come from?
In 2019, Syria headed to the United Arab Emirates as one of the favourites only for a defensive retrograde coach to leave the squad’s captain off the final squad sparking an internal revolt.
Fast forward five years and a different defensive, retrograde coach has left Omar Al-Somah — one of Asia’s top strikers — at home.
Results under Héctor Cúper have been unconvincing at best and there is a wary feeling that history might repeat itself. Syria finished dead last in their group in 2019.
Bassil Mikdadi is the creator of Football Palestine and an international football pundit. His work has been featured in the BBC, The Totally Football Show, and The Guardian