The AFC Asian Cup kicks off this weekend as stand-in hosts Qatar meet Lebanon at Lusail Stadium, not thirteen months on from the venue’s holding of the 2022 World Cup final between Argentina and France.

This tournament presents the Qatari team an opportunity to make amends, to an extent, for their poor showing on home soil when the eyes of the football world were upon them during that World Cup. The mission had appeared on track when they won the 2019 Asian Cup in the UAE, but had derailed by the time the main show arrived.

Broadly, it’s a third and final major tournament for the country in the modern era, if you consider the 2011 Asian Cup the opening chapter. Original hosts China’s inability to carry out the tournament due to Covid-19 policy means Qatar is in the spotlight once more, although Carlos Queiroz’s departure as manager last month means expectations are hard to define.

‘They’re the hosts and holders, so in normal circumstances you’d think they’d be favourites to win but it doesn’t seem to be that way’, Asian football expert Steve Price told Box2Box.

‘When we think back to the World Cup when Qatar lost all their games, they weren’t awful, but they weren’t anything special as hosts. After that Felix Sanchez, the coach who won the Asian Cup with them last time and developed all those players through their youth team all the way to that title, left.

‘Carlos Queiroz came in, he couldn’t quite do it, and now they have Tintin Marquez in as their new coach. Their one big plus is Almoez Ali, top scorer at the 2019 Asian Cup with nine goals, is still bang on form. He scored a hattrick against Cambodia in their warm-up match, and smashed in four against Afghanistan in a World Cup qualifier in November, so they’ve got a player that can score goals, and that always gives you a chance.’

Price believes the Socceroos, who are saddling up for their fifth Asian Cup after their 2007 debut, face the most even group with their assignment of India, Uzbekistan and Syria. Manager Graham Arnold will be hoping it’s a case of third time lucky under his management, having led the side at its two most disappointing outings in 2007 and 2019.

‘I think their group is the most interesting, because the teams are maybe a little bit stronger than those in others. If Australia get through that it might give them a benefit later on, having played those tougher opponents early.

‘There are so few players that were at the World Cup (just twelve of twenty-six are making the return journey) and that’s a bit of a strange one. Lots of teams generally start their cycle again after this tournament when you have four years leading up to the World Cup.

‘They seem to lack the stars of the past, and have guys like Harry Souttar, who has really struggled for game time at Leicester City this season. But there’s something that tells me not to write them off, they always seem to have a team mentality that gets them through tournaments.’

South Korea enter the tournament an undoubted powerhouse of the region, led by huge names in manager Jürgen Klinsmann and skipper Son Heung-min, but also carry the burden of a 64-year drought. Winners of the first two Asian Cups in 1956 & 1960, they’ve lost four finals since.

Their group of Malaysia, Jordan and Bahrain shouldn’t pose them too many problems in theory, and initial criticism of Klinsmann has been soothed by six consecutive wins since September. Price believes this presents as a golden opportunity to end their ‘sixty years of hurt.’

‘This will be one of their best chances, their team looks so strong on paper. Usually the tactic is for oppositions to mark Son, but this year is different because of the emergence of Lee Kang-in from Paris Saint-Germain, who’s been exceptional for South Korea.

‘That now gives them the ability to unlock teams from multiple angles, and they have Hwang Hee-chan scoring goals in the Premier League. They’ve also got probably the best defender in the world, Kim Min-jae, the most expensive player in Asia following his move to Bayern Munich, so they have strength in the back as well which is going to be huge for them.’