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AFC Asian Cup 2023: Five Group Stage Games To Watch Out For - India Vs Australia, Indonesia Vs Vietnam, And More

The AFC Asian Cup 2023 will kick off on January 12, 2024, with a 24-team group stage setting the scene for what lies in store. Here are five games to keep an eye out for in the first phase of the tournament, including India's bout with Australia, and Vietnam's tie against Indonesia

The AFC Asian Cup 2023 trophy on display
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The four-year wait is almost over. From January 12, 2024, until a month later, twenty-four of Asia's best teams will compete in a battle royale to be crowned the AFC Asian Cup 2023 winner. Twenty-three teams from all corners of the continent have joined hosts - and reigning champions - Qatar for the first phase of the tournament, from where merely eight teams will return home, the rest moving onward to the knockout stage. (Streaming | Football News)

Naturally, the group stage promises plenty of action and drama, with the draw pitting traditional rivals, Asian superpowers, and rising giants against each other. With that in mind, here are five AFC Asian Cup 2023 group stage games that are worth keeping an eye on. 

1. India vs Australia, Group B, January 13

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The Indian team poses for a pre-match picture before their game against Kuwait. Photo credit: X/ Indian Football Team

From the Indian perspective, no tie in the group stage is more significant than their early clash against Australia. Though they have drifted miles apart in terms of footballing pedigree - India lost much of its early sheen over decades while Australia joined the world elite - the sporting rivalry that exists between these two nations is enough to make any battle on any field a tantalising prospect. 

Moreover, for India, a solid start could take them a long way. While Australia are all but guaranteed a spot in the next round, the same is untrue for India, whose skipper Sunil Chhetri candidly stated that their group opponents were "notches above". A draw, or even a surprising win, would be counted among the most significant results in Indian football history and allow the Blue Tigers to prowl toward territories uncharted. 

2. Iraq vs Japan, Group D, January 19 

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Japanese players, in blue uniform, celebrate after winning over Thailand in a friendly soccer match, in Tokyo, Japan. Photo: AP/Shuji Kajiyama

Ranked the best team in Asia ahead of the AFC Asian Cup 2023, Japan are the favourites to win the tournament. The Blue Samurai have been in fine form since the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar and will return to the country confident of collecting a record-extending fifth Asian crown. 

On matchday two, Japan will face a team that remains largely unheralded, whose incredible triumph is only sporadically remembered when the continental cup rolls around every four years. Iraq may not have enjoyed the same status as some of their other regional and continental rivals, but they are one of the nine teams to have won the competition before. Presently, they are ranked the seventh-best team in Asia, making this battle much, much closer than one would perceive on first viewing. 

3. Vietnam vs Indonesia, Group D, January 19

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The Vietnam national football team lines up before a match. X/ AFC

Within the continent's footballing tapestry, South and Southeast Asia are two sections that have been left tattered and tainted, devoid of adequate attention and investment to rival those from corners distant. That mirage, however, has somewhat dissolved since 2019, when Vietnam reached the AFC Asian Cup quarter-finals before narrowly losing to Japan and later made it all the way to the FIFA World Cup 2022 AFC Third Round Qualifiers - the last stage before the finals.

Back in the competition, the Golden Dragons will be hoping to match their accomplishments from the past and keep their sensational run going. Along the way, they will face their regional rivals Indonesia, who are marking their return to the cup for the first time since 2007. Embellished by a shared football experience and rich fan culture, the battle between these two Southeast Asian sides will be one to relish. 

4. Qatar vs China PR, Group A, January 22

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Canadas Steven Vitória, left, and Qatars Akram Afif challenge for the ball during the international friendly soccer match between Qatar and Canada, at the Viola Park stadium in Vienna, Austria. Photo: AP/Florian Schroetter

There was, perhaps, a hint of astonishment in the minds of several Asian football fans when Qatar won the AFC Asian Cup four years earlier - if not due to their success, then because of the rampant means through which they achieved it. Four years on, Qatar are the reigning champions, looking to hold onto the coveted crown and prove to the world that their triumph was more than a one-off. To do so, they will have the backing of a strong home crowd behind them in every match they play. 

They will face China PR on matchday three of the tournament. The original hosts of the edition, China are among the bigger names not to have won the competition in the past, coming close in 1984 and 2004. While they are frequent participants in the knockout stages, their past journeys have inexplicably ended on the threshold of success - a fact they will be looking to correct this time around.  

5. IR Iran vs United Arab Emirates, Group C, January 23

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Iran's Ramin Rezaeian celebrates scoring his side's second goal during the World Cup Group B soccer match between Wales and Iran, at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar. Photo: AP/Francisco Seco

IR Iran are Asian royalty when it concerns football. Three times the winners of the AFC Asian Cup, Team Melli - Iran's colloquial calling - are one of the most successful teams in its history. Beyond that, they have provided several top-level footballers, chief among them Ali Daei, who, for what seemed like aeons, held the record for most international goals until Cristiano Ronaldo surpassed his tally for Portugal. 

Iran's triumphs, however, are stories of the past; the last time they won the Asian Cup, the year was 1976 and Daei was just seven years old. While passage to the knockouts will be a mere formality for them, Iran will face a tough challenge from the United Arab Emirates, ranked eighth-best in Asia, in the group. UAE's run to the semi-finals at home, four years ago, put them on the radar of avid football fans, who will be watching, eagle-eyed, to see if they can repeat their exploits this time around. 

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