Son He­ung-min, S. Ko­rea

China Daily - - SPORTS - Wu Lei, China Ali Mabkhout, UAE Maya Yoshida, Ja­pan Mat Ryan, Aus­tralia

Af­ter a string of eye-catch­ing per­for­mances in 2018, light­ning-quick Son is look­ing to add Asian Cup honors to the Asian Games gold he won in In­done­sia in Septem­ber. At the World Cup, Son scored a left-footed stun­ner against Mex­ico and an in­jury-time clincher to send holder Ger­many out. He has been in scorch­ing form for Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur in Eng­land, scor­ing eight goals in his last nine league ap­pear­ances. Among them was the Pre­mier League’s Novem­ber goal of the month — a quick­sil­ver piece of in­di­vid­ual magic against Chelsea — a rocket at Le­ices­ter and dou­bles in the 6-2 rout of Ever­ton and 5-0 Box­ing Day thrash­ing of Bournemout­h. He won’t fig­ure in South Ko­rea’s first two matches, un­der a deal done with Spurs, but class act Son can take the Asian Cup by the scruff of the neck once he touches down in the UAE.

If China is to spring a sur­prise and reach the lat­ter stages of the tour­na­ment, it will need Wu to fire for his coun­try. The for­ward hit 27 goals in 29 games to top the scor­ing chart in the Chi­nese Su­per League (CSL) and play a ma­jor part in Shang­hai SIPG’s maiden ti­tle tri­umph. But with a poor sup­ply line in the na­tional side, Wu has been nowhere near as pro­lific for his coun­try (13 goals in 59 games) and of­ten looks a shadow of the player he is for SIPG. Wu, who has been linked with a move to Chi­nese-owned English Pre­mier League side Wolver­hamp­ton Wan­der­ers, was voted CSL player of the sea­son last year, and with his speed and di­rect run­ning has the po­ten­tial to be one of the stars of the tour­na­ment.

Pro­lific striker Mabkhout’s five goals saw him bag the top scorer award at the last Asian Cup as the UAE reached the semi­fi­nals. He scored the win­ner in the third-place play­off and went on to be named the 2015 Asian Player of the Year. Mabkhout lit up the group stages in Aus­tralia with the fastest goal in Asian Cup his­tory, just 14 sec­onds into the UAE’s vic­tory over Bahrain. The 28-year-old, who plays for Al Jazira in Abu Dhabi, has a phe­nom­e­nal strike rate, hav­ing bagged 44 goals for his coun­try in 65 ap­pear­ances. He will have the ex­tra bur­den of car­ry­ing home hopes — the UAE reached its only pre­vi­ous fi­nal as host in 1996, los­ing to Saudi Ara­bia — in the ab­sence of in­jured star play­maker Omar “Amoory” Ab­dul­rah­man, the 2016 Asian Player of the Year.

As coach Ha­jime Moriyasu puts his faith in Ja­pan’s hun­gry, young play­ers at the Asian Cup, cap­tain Maya Yoshida’s ex­pe­ri­ence will be cru­cial. The 30-year-old Southamp­ton cen­ter­back has been a reg­u­lar fea­ture for his coun­try since mak­ing his de­but in 2010, help­ing the Blue Samu­rai win a record fourth Asian Cup the fol­low­ing year. A no-non­sense de­fender, Yoshida should be a calm­ing in­flu­ence when the go­ing gets tough in the UAE. The 89-cap vet­eran played a key role as Ja­pan reached the last 16 of last year’s World Cup, but had a game to for­get as it squan­dered a two-goal lead in a dra­matic 3-2 de­feat by Bel­gium. Yoshida won’t have to face Bel­gium’s fire­power at the Asian Cup but Iran, South Ko­rea and holder Aus­tralia should all pro­vide tough tests of his re­silience and com­po­sure.

The 26-year-old has fast es­tab­lished him­self as a first-rate goal­keeper in the English Pre­mier League and is one of the truly world­class tal­ents at the Asian Cup. At 6 foot (1.84 me­ters) he is rel­a­tively small for a keeper, but he stood tall for newly pro­moted Brighton last sea­son to help it avoid rel­e­ga­tion, and has been equally im­pres­sive this year. The Syd­ney-born Ryan rose to fame with the Cen­tral Coast Mariners in Aus­tralia’s A-League, earn­ing a move to Bel­gium’s Club Brugge be­fore a switch to Va­len­cia in La Liga and then Brighton in July 2017. He has played at two World Cups and was a key part of the Soc­ceroos’ win­ning team at the 2015 Asian Cup. He re­cently told re­porters he was “do­ing ev­ery­thing I can to repli­cate that this time”.

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