Ahead of the big kick-off in Asia’s premier continental competition, we’ve identified six players – one from each group – who could make the difference in Qatar.
Wu Lei is the top scorer in the current Chinese squad and the second-highest scorer in their history, with 32 international goals. He comes into this tournament as one of their most experienced and dangerous attacking players, so he will carry much of the burden going forwards.
In the last edition of the Asian Cup in 2019, he scored twice and was the joint-highest scorer in the Chinese team alongside Yu Dabao. He was their main attacking threat, taking at least 10 more touches in the opponent’s penalty area (29) than any other teammate, while also recording 1.62 expected goals, second only to Yu Dabao (1.72). He had five shots in the games against Thailand and the Philippines, the joint most by a Chinese player in a single Asian Cup match on record (since 2007).
In the recently-concluded 2023 Chinese Super League season, Wu Lei scored 18 goals, helping Shanghai Port to the title, with only Leonardo scoring more (19). In fact, since leaving Spanish side Espanyol in August 2022 and returning to Shanghai Port, he has scored 29 goals in the league, the joint-highest tally among Chinese Super League players.
Wu Lei is known for his speed and is a huge weapon on the break. Since moving back to Shanghai, he has had 13 shots from counter-attacks, ranking second in the league during that period alongside Oscar Maritu (14). Wu Lei, however, is the best finisher from such situations, having scored at least three more goals (five) on the counter than any other player.
Australia head into the 2023 AFC Asian Cup buoyant from a reasonably successful World Cup campaign that saw them scuppered at the last-16 stage by eventual champions Argentina. With a familiar squad named for their return to Qatar, the Socceroos will be optimistic of an even deeper drive into the knockout stages.
The inclusion of Melbourne Victory’s Bruno Fornaroli was inevitable given the Uruguay-born striker was in sensational form in the A-League Men, displaying the kind of natural goal-scoring acumen reminiscent of the days of Tim Cahill, Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka and co. in the green and gold.
After only seven games of the 2023-24 A-League Men season, Fornaroli was brushing with history, becoming the second-fastest player to 10 goals in a season (seven matches) behind only Jamie Maclaren’s six-game effort in 2019-20. In the process, he became just the third player to log 100 goals in the competition after Maclaren and Besart Berisha.
Fornaroli has scored four goals in a game twice in his last nine appearances in the competition, with his haul against Western Sydney Wanderers in December coming from just four shots. That made him one of only two players to have scored four or more goals in multiple games in the competition alongside Shane Smeltz (2).
Two caps in March 2022 for the Socceroos means Fornaroli won’t come into this as a complete newcomer, but he’ll be hoping to get more than the 45 and 22 minutes he was allowed on the pitch in those fixtures as Australia look to claim their second AFC Asian Cup title.
Shane Miles and Lukas Zaher
United Arab Emirates
Ali Mabkhout, the all-time leading scorer for the UAE national team and the UAE Pro League, is a cool and calm character. It’s become a common sight to see him produce little more than a smile as his celebration after scoring; after all, he’s scored so many over the years that anything more exaggerated might become tiresome.
Even if we ignore his post-scoring behaviour, Mabkhout is generally not completely satisfied with just getting goals. He also plays a pivotal role in his club side, Al Jazira, with his movements inside and outside the penalty area, plus the creation of chances for teammates. Over the last three UAE Pro League seasons, he’s been involved in the third-most attacking sequences, and more than any other striker in this period.
His status in the UAE Pro League is significant given he’s scored more goals than anyone else in it, but Mabkhout has other records in sight as well. He’s aiming to become the most prolific Arab player in all top-tier leagues around globe, with his 216 goals behind only Omar Al Somah (230) – currently playing for Al-Arabi in Qatar – and Abderrazak Hamdallah (229) of Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ittihad.
But as alluded to before, Mabkhout’s record at international level is no less impressive, and he has a record in sight at this tournament as well.
No player scored more goals than Mabkhout across the last two editions of the Asian Cup (nine goals), tied with Qatar’s Almoez Ali, who scored all nine of his in the last edition to set a single-tournament record. Both players are now just five away from Iran great Ali Daei’s all-time benchmark of 14.
His Qatari rival may offer some stiff competition, but it’s certainly not an achievement that’s out of Mabkhout’s reach. He might crack a little more than a smile if this proves to be a fruitful campaign.
After wins over former world champions Germany and Spain in the 2022 World Cup, Japan have emerged as a footballing force to be reckoned with. The Samurai Blue arrive at this AFC Asian Cup in red-hot form, especially in front of goal, having scored four or more in eight of their 11 games since Qatar 2022.
Japan’s squad is brimming with talent, with a plethora of players now plying their trade in Europe as key cogs for their respective sides, including captain Wataru Endo at Liverpool.
One other such player is Real Sociedad’s Takefusa Kubo. The 22-year-old is fulfilling the promise shown at an early age that made Barcelona take notice of him in 2011, and then Real Madrid in 2019.
After being named as La Real’s Player of the Season in 2022-23 for his 13 goal contributions (9 goals and 4 assists) in La Liga, Kubo has followed it up with another nine goal involvements (6 goals and 3 assists) already this term. His six goals in 2023-24 have come from a non-penalty expected goals (npxG) value of just 2.6, with only Real Madrid’s Jude Bellingham (+5.8) boasting a better npxG differential than Kubo (+3.4) in Spain’s top flight this season.
The former Real Madrid talent is a menace while driving with the ball at his feet. The left-footed tricky winger is blessed with quick feet and vision to break lines with his passing. With a tendency to cut inside from the right, Kubo is adept at turning these opportunities into shots, further adding to his threat. Only Rodrygo (34) and Iñaki Williams (31) have recorded more shot-ending carries in La Liga than the Japan international (28) this season.
After finishing as runners-up in the 2019 edition of the AFC Asian Cup, Japan will be eager to bring home a record-extending fifth title. If they do, there’s every chance Kubo will have been the difference.
Son Heung-min will be the first name that springs to mind when many people think of Asia’s best football exports. He became the first Asian player ever to finish a season as the top scorer in one of Europe’s top five leagues in the 2021-22 Premier League campaign with 23 goals, the same as Mohamed Salah. He’s arguably the continent’s greatest player ever, but there’s one thing missing: a trophy.
After his former Tottenham partner-in-crime Harry Kane moved to Bayern Munich in search of finally winning some silverware, the AFC Asian Cup is the best chance for Son to do so. He has tried three times before, representing South Korea at the tournament in 2011, 2015 and 2019, but he’s yet to lift the trophy. The closest he got was in 2015 when his current Spurs manager Ange Postecoglou denied Son at the last hurdle, with Australia beating the Taeguk Warriors 2-1 after extra time in the final in Sydney.
The 2019 edition was Son’s worst. He failed to score a single goal, attempting just three shots while playing just shy of 300 minutes, but the good news is he’s on fire again this season.
Son has scored 12 goals and recorded five assists in 20 Premier League appearances for Postecoglou’s new-look Spurs, already exceeding last season’s goal involvements tally (10 goals and six assists) from 16 fewer matches. He’s also the biggest xG overperformer in the competition (+4.9 – 12 goals from 7.1 xG), highlighting just how deadly he’s been in front of goal.
He’s well known as a sharpshooter, but Son – now a captain at club and international level – can also be a reliable source of creativity. He’s one of the four forwards involved in 100+ shot-ending open-play sequences in the Premier League this season (115), while Salah is the only forward who has created more chances in open play.
Considering his talents as a double-threat in attack plus the leadership and experience he brings, Son is the player who can lead this team down the path of glory to the triumph his legacy deserves.
Feras Al Brikan
Feras Al Brikan may only be 23 years old, but with 38 caps for Saudi Arabia, his experience is already quite extensive and he’ll take on a key role in Qatar after becoming one of the most-trusted players of Hervé Renard during his time in charge.
Nicknamed ‘the melody player’ for his trademark celebration in which he mimics strumming a stringed instrument, Al Brikan will hope his teammates are playing to the same rhythm over the next month, with Saudi Arabia aiming to win a record-equalling fourth title and first since 1996.
Although Al Brikan was first capped in 2019, it wasn’t really until late 2021/early 2022 that he cemented his place as Saudi Arabia’s main striker, with three goals in a run of five World Cup qualifiers – his strikes all came in victories as they defeated Japan, China and Oman.
He started his club career with Al Nassr but, after only being used sparingly due to the presence of Abderrazak Hamdallah as first-choice in attack, he made the decision to leave for Al-Fateh in 2021. He’s not looked back since, going from strength to strength and boasting a scoring record of better than one in two (32 goals in 62 matches).
This form persuaded Saudi Pro League title hopefuls Al-Ahli to make a move for him in September, and it’s proven a shrewd move with Roberto Firmino embarking on a 16-match barren run in front of goal since netting a hat-trick on his debut in August.
Al Brikan’s last game for Al-Fateh actually came in a 5-1 mauling of Al-Ahli, impressing the latter’s coach Matthias Jaissle so much in his goal-scoring performance that the German supposedly pushed for his signing immediately. It’s been a good match so far as well, with Al Brikan scoring seven in 12 SPL games this season, making him the division’s top-scoring Saudi player since his debut in April 2018 (43).
What distinguishes Al Brikan the most is the accuracy of his shots and how clinical he’s been over the past few years. Since joining Al-Fateh, Al Brikan has scored 39 goals in the Saudi Pro League; among players who’ve netted at least 30 goals in that period, he has comfortably the best conversion rate (33.1%).
In a Group C that also contains Iraq, Thailand and Tajikistan, Al Brikan can expect opportunities to display such abilities, which would be a welcome sight for Saudi fans who have only seen him net once for the senior side since early 2022.