The Asian Cup will begin next week as the continent’s best sides battle to be crowned champions in Qatar.
The high summer temperatures in Qatar have seen the tournament rescheduled to a mid-season date, with Asia’s finest footballers departing club commitments to compete for international success.
There will be 19 English-based players at the tournament, including Spurs captain Son Heung-min and Liverpool midfielder Wataru Endo. Ahead of the opening fixtures, we’ve profiled five players to keep an eye on during the 2023 Asian Cup.
Mehdi Taremi – Iran
Mehdi Taremi will lead Iran’s challenge in the competition as Amir Ghalenoei’s side look to win a first Asian Cup title in 48 years.
The 31-year-old boasts a brilliant record on the international stage with 41 goals in 71 caps, and has impressed since leaving the Middle East for Portuguese football in 2019.
A goal-laden season with Rio Ave earned Taremi a move to divisional rivals Porto, where he has since scored 86 goals in 171 games in all competitions. A two-time winner of the Bola de Prata as the leading scorer in Portugal’s Primeira Liga, Taremi is out of contract at the end of the season and has been linked with a number of Europe’s top clubs.
Inter Milan and Manchester United have been credited with interest in snaring the experienced striker on a free transfer.
Ali Mabkhout – United Arab Emirates
Ali Mabkhout is name that will perhaps be unfamiliar to European football fans, but in Asian football the UAE forward is known as one of the continent’s leading goalscorers.
The 33-year-old is the sixth-highest international goalscorer of all time having hit 84 goals in 114 caps for the national team. The United Arab Emirates have never before won the Asian Cup, but have reached the semi-finals in each of the last two editions.
Mabkhout finished as the tournament’s leading scorer in 2015, and was named in the Team of the Tournament for a second time as the UAE reached the last four in 2019.
The veteran – who has spent his entire career in his homeland and has scored 256 goals in all competitions during a one-club career with the Sheikh Mansour-owned Al Jazira – will spearhead the UAE’s challenge in what is likely to be his last Asian Cup.
Abdukodir Khusanov – Uzbekistan
Abdukodir Khusanov made history this season after becoming the first Uzbek player to play in Ligue 1.
The 19-year-old joined last season’s runners-up, Lens, from Belarusian side FC Energetik-BGU Minsk in the summer and has made five starts in France’s top division this season.
The centre-back made his debut for the national team in June and has since won seven senior caps. Khusanov formed part of the team that won the AFC U-20 Asian Cup in 2023, beating South Korea in the final to hand Uzbekistan a maiden title.
He is the only player in the Uzbekistan squad representing a side from one of Europe’s top five leagues.
Ko Itakura – Japan
Japan will start the tournament as favourites and boast a squad stacked with talent from Europe’s top five leagues.
Brighton winger Kaoru Mitoma and Real Sociedad star Takefusa Kubo are among the most exciting attacking talents for the Samurai Blue, who will be captained by Liverpool midfielder Wataru Endo.
Another player who could soon make a high-profile move is Ko Itakura. Liverpool and Spurs are said to have checked in on the progress of the Borussia Monchengladbach defender this season, with the 26-year-old’s comfortability on the ball and versatility appealing to England’s elite.
🇯🇵 Ko Itakura, one to watch in 2024 as top clubs are monitoring Japanese CB.
Understand Liverpool have sent their scouts multiple times to follow Itakura’s performances.
Tottenham also monitored him as Ange Postecoglou wanted Ko at Celtic.
Release clause NOT valid in January. pic.twitter.com/E6Ce08dAd4
— Fabrizio Romano (@FabrizioRomano) January 1, 2024
Itakura, who can operate at centre-back or left-back, ranks in the 93rd percentile of defenders in Europe’s top five leagues for blocks per game across the last 12 months. Last season, just two players in the Bundesliga bettered his 90.8% pass completion.
Lee Kang-in – South Korea
Son Heung-min is the star name in the South Korea side, with Bayern Munich defender Kim Min-jae adding another elite option to the Taegeuk Warriors.
One player aiming to break into that top-level bracket alongside his compatriots is Lee Kang-in, who formed part of Paris Saint-Germain’s remarkable recruitment drive in the summer.
The 22-year-old has broken into the team in recent weeks and has grown in influence for the Ligue 1 leaders, opening the scoring in the 2-0 win over Toulouse in the The Trophée des Champions this week.
— Paris Saint-Germain (@PSG_English) January 4, 2024
Comfortable in a number of creative midfield roles, his task will be supplying the ammunition to an in-form frontline of Son and Wolves striker Hwang Hee-chan. South Korea have not won the Asian Cup since the second of back-to-back successes in 1960.