On Saturday in Abu Dhabi, the UAE and Bahrain will open the biggest Asian Cup yet after it grew from 16 to 24 teams, paving the way for Kyrgyzstan, war-torn Yemen and Sven-Goran Eriksson's Philippines to make their debuts.
On their first match on Jan. 7, 9:30 p.m. at Al Maktoum Stadium, the Filipinos will play against the formidable Korea Republic bannered by Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-min.
South Korea hopes Son’s dazzling pace and goals can help them end a 59-year wait to be crowned continental kings as the newly expanded Asian Cup starts at the weekend.
Holders Australia, four-time winners Japan, Carlos Queiroz's Iran and hosts the United Arab Emirates are all formidable opponents, but none will relish facing Paulo Bento's Koreans.
The 2015 runners-up have put their stamp on the international scene in recent times, stunning holders Germany at last year's World Cup before winning the Asian Games football tournament in September.
Son, 26, was at the heart of both successes and his delight was plain to see at the Asian Games in Indonesia, where victory earned the team an exemption from South Korea's compulsory, 21-month military service.
The Korean sensation, who has a deadly shot with either foot, has been in scorching form for his club, scoring seven goals in his last seven Premier League games. But he will sit out South Korea's first two games next week under a deal with his club in return for his release for last year's Asian Games.
Son, the most prolific Asian in Premier League history, will hope South Korea get the job done against the Philippines and Kyrgyzstan before he jets in for their final Group C clash against China on January 16.
The Koreans, edged 2-1 by Australia after the 2015 final went to extra time, haven't won the Asian Cup since 1960 -- a puzzling record considering their 10 World Cup appearances, including the 2002 semi-finals.
Meanwhile, among many sub-plots, China's stuttering attempts to become a football power will come under scrutiny, in what looks set to be Marcello Lippi's last outing as coach, while India get a rare chance to impress at the region's top level.
Saudi Arabia, who won the last of their three Asian Cup titles in 1996, should factor in the closing stages, and Syria, Uzbekistan and North Korea lurk as dark horses.
One wildcard looks set to be the introduction of video assistant referees (VAR) from the quarter-finals, which could raise the likelihood of penalties after playing a role in the record number given at last year's World Cup.*AFP
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