Harimau's Arif among five young stars to watch at Asian Cup

DOHA: The Asian Cup is set to kick off on Jan 12 when the hosts and reigning champions Qatar take on Lebanon in the opening match.

While Son Heung Min, Mehdi Taremi, Ali Mabkhout and Wataru Endo will be some of the most high-profile names in action during the 18th edition of the tournament, there are also plenty of up-and-coming stars who will be hoping to elevate their status over the coming month.

The Asian Football Confederation takes a look at five youngsters who have the potential to shine in Doha.

Ali Jasim (Iraq)

Ali was a revelation during the 2023-24 Asian Champions League (ACL) group stage as the teenager found the back of the net four times – two of them coming on his tournament debut against Sepahan – for Air Force Club who narrowly missed out on a last 16 berth from Group C.

However, keen followers of Asian football were not surprised by the rapid rise of Ali, who was one of the stars of the Under-20 Asian Cup in Uzbekistan last year.

There, the youngster produced an injury-time winner against Iran in the quarter-finals, which also helped Iraq qualify for the Under-20 World Cup.

He netted against Japan in the semi-final too as Iraq finished runners-up to hosts Uzbekistan.

The 19-year-old, having made his senior international debut in October, will now hope to make an equally impressive showing at the Asian Cup.

Takefusa Kubo (Japan)

After clocking only a little over 90 minutes at the World Cup last year, 22-year-old Kubo returns to Qatar set to play a starring role for the 2019 Asian Cup runners-up Japan this time around as they look to go one step further by winning a record-extending fifth title.

Despite making his debut for Hajime Moriyasu's side shortly after turning 18 in 2019, it took some time for Kubo to develop into a regular for the East Asian nation. However, having scored his first goal for Japan in 2022, he is now an integral part of a team that have won nine games in a row since June 2023.

The winger has also shone brightly in Spain, scoring nine goals last season to help steer Real Sociedad into the UEFA Champions League for the first time in a decade. And he has already netted six times in La Liga this season for La Real who are once again aiming to finish among the top four.

Abbosbek Fayzullaev (Uzbekistan)

Fayzullaev burst onto the scene during the Under-23 Asian Cup in 2022 when Uzbekistan finished runners-up before they went one step further the following year, winning the Under-20 Asian Cup with Fayzullaev emerging as the MVP of the tournament.

Making his senior Uzbekistan debut at 19, Fayzullaev only had to wait until his second cap to score his maiden goal in a 5-1 win against Tajikistan in the CAFA Nations Cup last June. He also scored his second senior goal in a 4-1 friendly win against Kyrgyzstan on Dec 25.

Last year also saw him make the move to CSKA Moscow from Pakhtakor and the 20-year-old attacking midfielder has wasted no time in making an impression in the Russian capital, weighing in with both goals and assists in the first half of the season. He'll hope to take that form to Qatar.

Lee Kang In (South Korea)

Brushing aside concerns about limited playing time after signing for a star-studded PSG side last summer, Lee Kang In has quickly established himself as an important member of Luis Enrique's PSG squad who are challenging for titles both domestically and in Europe.

Starring regularly alongside Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele, the 22-year-old South Korea international is having a fruitful debut season in the French capital and recently opened the scoring as the Parisians overcame Toulouse 2-0 and lifted the French Champions Trophy.

Kang In has also hit a purple patch with the national team, registering an impressive four goals and three assists in his last four international appearances which bodes well for Jurgen Klinsmann and the Taeguk Warriors who will be hunting for their first AFC Asian Cup title since 1960.

Arif Aiman Hanapi (Malaysia)

Arif has had a year like no other for Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT).

The 21-year-old winger scored 12 goals and provided a hatful of assists as JDT secured the Malaysia Super League title for the 10th season running while he also netted thrice in the ACL group stage.

Arif replicated that form on the international stage too — be it when he bagged four goals in Malaysia's 10-0 win against Papua New Guinea in a friendly in June or his hat-trick of assists in November's 4-3 win against Kyrgyzstan in a World Cup qualifier.

Blessed with pace and footwork to get past defenders, the JDT forward could prove to be a potent weapon for Kim Pan Gon as the Harimau Malaya look to make a mark on their return to the continental showpiece for the first time since 2007.

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