Son Heung-min, S. Korea
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”.