Doha: Australia, Japan and South Korea head into the Asian Cup as clear favorites in a tournament that will test Qatar`s ability to host a major event after being controversially awarded the 2022 World Cup.
The three-week football festival, featuring the region`s top 16 teams, kicks off on January 7 when the hosts face Uzbekistan ahead of the final on January 29.
How the tiny Gulf emirate fares in staging such a high-profile tournament will be closely watched after FIFA surprisingly handed it the World Cup ahead of more fancied bids from Australia, Japan, South Korea and the United States.
Qatar has insisted that it won on the merits of a bold proposal to build climate-controlled stadia that will enable players and fans to be comfortable in its desert heat.
But there have been plenty of sceptics amid claims that the decision was political, linked to Qatar`s deep pockets.
While 16 teams take part, the heavyweight trio of Australia, Japan and South Korea are expected to dominate as they look to build on solid showings at the 2010 World Cup.
But it won`t be a three-horse race with Iraq the defending champions and Kuwait coming off a morale-boosting victory at the recent Gulf Cup, while Iran and Saudi Arabia can never be written off.
Australia`s squad of European-based stars are desperate to make amends for their maiden tournament in 2007 when they struggled.
Back then, the Socceroos found it difficult to adapt to the hot and humid conditions of Southeast Asia. Winter in Doha will suit them more -- warm during the day but chilly in the evening.
"I have the confidence that this team is pretty strong and they are ready to really produce something," said Socceroos coach Holger Osieck.
The Aussies have a formidable squad led by Everton attacking midfielder Tim Cahill, Blackburn`s Brett Emerton, Fulham goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer and the Galatasaray pair of Harry Kewell and Lucas Neill.
They are grouped with the Park Ji-Sung-led South Korea, who made the knockout rounds in South Africa.