|Japan's Honda trains in Doha as Qatar prepares to come under the spotlight of Asia and the world in January [AFP]
Japan are favourites to win a fourth Asian Cup trophy as the tournament kicks off with the world's eyes on Qatar following their successful World Cup 2022 bid.
An evenly matched 16-team field in Doha which includes ties between the likes of Iraq and Iran, and Australia and South Korea, will provide just half the story as observers look for signs that the tiny Gulf state can host football's biggest event in 11 years' time.
The hot weather – which is proving an issue for 2022 – won't be a factor this month.
The Asian Cup, which runs until January 29, was moved from its normal summer timetable and temperatures will hover around the 20C mark before dropping for the evening matches.
The biggest challenge will likely be logistics. Tens of thousands of football fans will stream into the country, counting on a transportation network which as yet has no metro system and is reliant on taxis, private cars and a small fleet of buses.
The ticketing system at the stadiums has not been tested on this scale since the 2006 Asian Games.
Qatar has not set itself up as a tourist destination on the scale of Dubai and Abu Dhabi and there will be some question of what fans do for three weeks – beside football and sunbathing.
Will fans be charmed by the souqs, desert scenery, water sports and shopping, or grumble over the fact they can't buy a beer outside the hotels in this conservative Muslim country?
"Winning the right to host the World Cup will significantly increase the pressure for Qatar to make the Asian Cup a success," said Simon Chadwick, a sports marketing expert at Coventry University in England who visited the country a few weeks before it won the 2022 bid.
"I think we should try to (win the Asian Cup) again. But first we have the match with Iran, and then our target is to reach the quarter-finals"
Wolfgang Sidka, coach of defending champions Iraq
"Organisers need to make sure that those in Qatar for the tournament, as well as those observing from afar, get as positive a feeling about the country as possible."
The tournament is also be a chance to promote Asian football, which has seen its fortunes on the rise after Japan and South Korea hosted the World Cup in 2002, sparking an influx of players from the continent into top European leagues.
Alberto Zaccheroni took over Japan in August keen to build on their best performance at a World Cup on foreign soil after they reached the last 16 in South Africa, and has been set the task of finishing at least third.
The Italian, who began his reign with a surprise 1-0 win over a full-strength Argentina and has seen 21-year-old attacking midfielder Shinji Kagawa flourish in his debut season at Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund, is in confident mood.
"Going out with this lineup, we should not fear any opponent," Zaccheroni, who won Serie A with AC Milan in 1999, said.
CSKA Moscow's freekick specialist Keisuke Honda and former AFC Player of the Year Yasuhito Endo also provide creativity for the Blue Samurai who face Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia in Group B.
The Saudis, who knocked Japan out of the 2007 tournament, failed to reach the World Cup finals for the first time since 1990 and the Gulf side's Portuguese boss Jose Peseiro is the most under-pressure coach at the Asian Cup.
He took charge near the end of the World Cup qualifying campaign but was not spared criticism for the failure and will need a good showing with the three-times winners and 2007 runners-up to avoid the sack.
At 26th Australia are the highest ranked team in the tournament according to world governing body FIFA, but with an ageing side that failed to deliver at last year's World Cup, they have been keen to play down expectations.
|Qataris watch German club Bayern Munich's training camp in Doha on the eve of the Asian Cup [AFP]
Thirty-somethings Tim Cahill, Harry Kewell, Mark Schwarzer, Lucas Neill and Brett Emerton will again lead the Socceroos' charge as they attempt to improve on their quarter-final exit in their debut Asian Cup showing four years ago.
South Korea, drawn with Australia, India and Bahrain in Group C, are expected to mount a strong challenge for their first Asian Cup title in 51 years but the loss of key striker Park Chu-young, injured after celebrating a goal for French club AS Monaco, is a big blow.
The Koreans, who reached the last 16 of the World Cup, will look to in-form midfielders Park Ji-sung of Manchester United and Bolton Wanderers' Lee Chung-yong for inspiration but need someone to convert the chances they create to win a third title.
Champions Iraq, whose shock victory in 2007 proved how open the tournament traditionally is, are just happy to be here after enduring a tumultuous four years since they won the trophy.
They have the tricky task of getting out of Group D – which contains old foes Iran, secretive North Korea and United Arab Emirates – after being banned by FIFA twice and using several coaches since Jorvan Vieira quit following the 2007 triumph.
"I think we should try to do it (win the tournament) again," said coach Wolfgang Sidka.
"But first we have the match with Iran and that's our neighbours and our rivals and then our target is to reach the quarter-finals."
The tournament kicks-off on Friday with hosts Qatar facing Uzbekistan in Group A, which appears the weakest of the four pools.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies