Football: Five teams and star footballers to look out for at 2015 Asian Cup

Kuwait's football team go through their exercises in the final training session ahead of the Asian Cup in Melbourne on Jan 8, 2015. Australia and Kuwait play the opening match of the AFC Asian Cup on Jan 9, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
Kuwait's football team go through their exercises in the final training session ahead of the Asian Cup in Melbourne on Jan 8, 2015. Australia and Kuwait play the opening match of the AFC Asian Cup on Jan 9, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP

The 2015 Asian Cup, the continent's premier football tournament, kicks off tomorrow, with hosts Australia taking on Kuwait in their Group A encounter.

Here are the five of the top contenders and star players to look out for at the tournament, which will feature the best of Asian football.

1. Japan

Despite a mediocre 2014 World Cup campaign where they drew one and lost two matches, defending champions and record four-time winners Japan are still the team to beat.

Their fate lies in the hands of a clutch of Europe-based star players, including the attacking trio of Keisuke Honda (AC Milan), Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund), and Shinji Okazaki (FSV Mainz), who will cause opponents sleepless nights with their movement and finishing in the final third.

The Japanese are fit, technically sound, and should dominate possession in most of their matches as they look to break down teams with their offensive threat.

The real worry for the Samurai Blue lies in their defence - they conceded six goals in three games during the World Cup to finish bottom of their group.

Key player: Keisuke Honda

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The attacking midfielder is arguably the hottest footballer in Asia, and has excelled since his move to Italian club AC Milan, where he scored six goals in Milan's first seven Serie A matches. Honda, 28, will provide the attacking spark from a free role behind the main striker. His delivery from corners and free-kicks will also be a key weapon in the Samurai Blue's arsenal.

2. Australia

Hosts Australia will be keen to build on their last Asian Cup campaign, where they lost 0-1 to Japan in the final after extra time. Captain and defensive midfielder Mile Jedinak, who is enjoying a solid season with club Crystal Palace in the English Premier League, is a key anchor man and will protect his defenders with his hard tackling and timely interceptions. Under coach Ange Postecoglou, the Socceroos are evolving from their direct style to an attacking system based on possession and short passing. But the team remains one of the tournament's most physical sides, and will play long balls to exploit the aerial ability of Tim Cahill.

Key player: Tim Cahill

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At 35, Tim Cahill is in the twilight of his career. But the New York Red Bulls attacking midfielder remains a key man for club and country, and will look to end what is likely to be his last Asian Cup campaign on a high. A lethal threat up front with his aerial ability, the ex-Everton star is also good with his feet, as his stunning volley against Holland at last year's World Cup proved. Cahill, who is Australia's all-time leading scorer with 36 goals in 76 appearances, will shoulder much of the hosts' hopes of winning the Asian Cup for the first time.

3. South Korea

Like Japan, South Korea also failed to impress at the last World Cup, and finished bottom of their group with one draw and two defeats. A coaching change after their disastrous campaign saw German Uli Stielike handed the task of whipping the Taeguk Warriors into shape. Results under the German - three wins and two losses - remain unconvincing. But the team still boast a number of players plying their trade in Europe, such as Swansea's Ki Sung Yueng, Bayer Leverkusen's Son Heung Min, and Mainz 05's Koo Ja Cheol, and will be relying on their pedigree to secure a third Asian Cup title.

Key player: Son Heung Min

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One of the few players to emerge with their reputations intact after the World Cup, Son is a pacy striker good with both feet and clinical in front of goal. The Bayer Leverkusen attacker has proven his mettle in Europe, bagging five goals and two assists in 16 Bundesliga appearances this season. Still only 22, he is hailed as the country's next big hope, and will be keen to impress in his second Asian Cup appearance.

4. Iran

World No. 42 Iran enter the tournament as the top-ranked Asian team, and were undefeated in the qualifying stage.

That said, the Iranians, led by former Real Madrid and Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz, should be considered dark horses for the competition.

Despite boasting several exciting players like Askhan Dejagah and Javad Nekounam, the team rely more on their defensive solidity, a Queiroz trademark.

On their day, Iran will not excite, but can prove difficult to breakdown. They almost held a Lionel Messi-led Argentina to a 0-0 draw at last year's Fifa World Cup - until Messi scored the winner five minutes into stoppage time.

Key Player: Askhan Dejagah

Voted Fulham's player of the year in 2014, Dejagah is the key attacking outlet in an otherwise defensive team. Demonstrated his prowess with a stunning solo goal against Everton in the English Premier League last March. The midfielder, who signed for Qatari club Al-Arabi last July, can unsettle defenders with his speed, dribbling, and ability to shoot from distance.

5. Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has a good track record in the Asian Cup. Of the eight times they took part, the Falcons reached the finals an impressive six times, winning on three occasions. That said, their standing in Asian football has taken a hit in recent times. In the 2011 Asian Cup, the oil-rich country was knocked out in the group stage after losing all their matches. They have also failed to qualify for the last two World Cup finals. Romanian coach Cosmin Olaroiu, who has found success coaching clubs in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, was appointed last month in a bid to stem the decline. The team reached the Gulf Cup final in November, where they lost to Qatar 1-2. Olaroiu can only hope the stinging defeat will galvanise his team.

Key player: Nasser Al-Shamrani

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Striker Nasser Al-Shamrani holds the key for the Saudis in Australia. The reigning Asian Footballer of the Year is a complete forward - quick, skilful, intelligent, and clinical. He scored 26 goals in 21 appearances in the domestic league for Al-Hilal last season, and has nine from 12 this year. His temperament is questionable though. The striker was handed an eight-match ban by the Asian Football Confederation for spitting at Australian and Western Sydney Wanderers player Matthew Spiranovic after the 2014 Asian Champions League final.