Abu Dhabi: While street-wise South Korea pack a harder punch, former Japan coach Philippe Troussier has tipped the Blue Samurai to push their fierce rivals all the way at the Asian Cup.
"Japan have one of the best teams in the competition on paper," the Frenchman told AFP before hosts United Arab Emirates meet Bahrain in Saturday's opening match.
"Of course teams like South Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia have the same ambition, but Japan has the potential to win the title."
A South Korea side led by free-scoring Tottenham forward Son Heung-min start as favourites to end more than 50 years of Asian Cup hurt.
Iran, Asia's top-ranked side, also pose a threat to Japan's hopes, along with holders Australia.
But a new-look Japan side are capable of springing an upset, as they proved by reaching the knockout stages of last year's World Cup in Russia after controversially sacking coach Vahid Halilhodzic in the run-up.
Only a stunning comeback by Belgium prevented Japan from reaching the quarter-finals under interim boss Akira Nishino, and veteran defender Yuto Nagatomo insists there is more to come.
"We have to believe we can win it," the Galatasaray full-back told local media. "But all the players need to be at it."
Meanwhile, Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu indulged in some early mind games by claiming his side were long shots to snaffle a record-extending fifth title.
"We're the challengers," said the former Japan midfielder, who has yet to lose since taking over from Nishino after the World Cup.
"Our job is to try and snatch the title back."
Hezbollah and crocodiles
Troussier steered Japan to the 2000 Asian Cup, where his players trained on a bumpy pitch in Beirut surrounded by bombed-out houses used as hideouts by Hezbollah fighters while Israeli warplanes roared overhead.
The Frenchman sees parallels in the current Japan side's blend of youth and experience.
"The fact Japan got to the last 16 at the World Cup will also give them a lot of confidence," added Troussier. "It's also a good chance to prepare the younger generation for the next World Cup in 2022."
Meanwhile, Iran coach Carlos Queiroz has called on the country's football federation to protect his players as they chase a first Asian Cup since completing a hat-trick of titles in 1976.
"Iran football officials should learn from the past and must protect us from people who want to distract our concentration," said the former Real Madrid boss, currently being linked with the Colombia job.
"We must be protected from crocodiles."
On the pitch, Iran look settled: a narrow 1-0 defeat to Spain and 1-1 draw with Portugal at the World Cup has been followed by a six-match unbeaten streak.
South Korea's 59-year wait for a third Asian Cup is puzzling for a country that reached the 2002 World Cup semi-finals.
But while Australia, Iran and the Emirates are outside bets to win a tournament expanded from 16 to 24 teams, none will relish facing Paulo Bento's Koreans.
South Korea were runners-up to the Socceroos in 2015 and are unbeaten under Bento since exiting the World Cup following a stunning 2-0 victory over holders Germany.
Son sits out South Korea's first two Asian Cup games under a deal with his Premier League club, but the Taeguk Warriors should still have too much firepower for the Philippines and Kyrgyzstan in their first two Group C fixtures.
Elsewhere, Australia appear to have gone backwards since lifting the trophy in Sydney four years ago.
New coach Graham Arnold has not been helped by record scorer Tim Cahill's retirement, while a serious knee injury has ruled playmaker Aaron Mooy out of the tournament.
The Emiratis, runners-up as hosts in 1996, have also lost the mercurial Omar Abdulrahman to injury but will also be buzzing after hosting the FIFA Club World Cup last month when local side Al Ain reached the final against Real Madrid.
Rivals Qatar will be desperate to make a statement before hosting the 2022 World Cup, despite being under economic blockade from their Gulf neighbours since June 2017 over Doha's alleged support of terrorism – a charge Qatar denies.
The world's most populous countries -- China and cricket-mad India -- take part, China once again hoping to make an impact in what looks set to be Marcello Lippi's last outing as coach.
The likes of Kyrgyzstan, war-torn Yemen and Sven-Goran Eriksson's Philippines, meanwhile, are happy just to have qualified.
But Saudi Arabia, who won the last of their three Asian Cup titles in 1996, could factor in the closing stages, while Syria, Uzbekistan and North Korea lurk as dark horses.
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Updated Date: Jan 04, 2019 15:17:19 IST