As excitement builds towards the start of the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, here are five players fans should keep an eye on:
Ali Mabkhout (UAE)
While Omar Abdulrahman rightfully gets most of the attention, 24-year-old Mabkhout could set the Asian Cup alight. While he’s not overly tall, what he lacks in height he more than makes up for with his deft touch and laser-like shooting, evidenced by his nine goals in 12 games for Al Jazira this season.
A product of the youth system at Al Jazira, Mabkhout first came to prominence for the national team at the 2013 Gulf Cup, with two goals in the first two games which helped UAE go on to eventually claim the title.
The Gulf Cup, this time in November 2014, was the showcase again for just how lethal he can be as he claimed the Golden Boot with five goals in five games. He scored a further six goals in qualifying for this year’s Asian Cup, including a hattrick against Hong Kong.
With service from both Abdulrahman’s – Omar and Amer – and playing alongside the equally dangerous Ahmed Khalil, Mabkhout will be a constant threat for opposition defences. If UAE go deep in the tournament, as I suspect they might, don’t count him out as a Golden Boot contender.
Son Heung-min (Korea Republic)
A bonafide superstar in the making, it’s sometimes hard to believe he is just 22. After leaving Korea as a 16-year-old to join Hamburg’s youth academy, Son soon made his mark by becoming the youngest player to score for the club when he found the net against FC Koln in October 2010.
A genuine winger, equally adept with both feet, he loves nothing more than running at opponents and has a highlights reel that’d be the envy of most. The move to Champions League side Bayer Leverkusen at the beginning of last season has just furthered his development and it won’t be long before a bigger move beckons.
But while his club career is booming, Son has struggled to replicate his form with the national team. After a disappointing World Cup, at which he was one of Korea’s better performers, expectations are low for this Korean team. If they are to contend for the title Son will need to have a breakout tournament. He’s certainly capable and here’s hoping we see the best of him this month.
Nawaf Al-Abid (Saudi Arabia)
While fans and media in Australia are focusing on his Al Hilal teammate Nasser Al-Shamrani, Al-Abid is one of a number of exciting young talents in this Saudi side alongside Salem Al-Dawsari (23), Salman Al-Faraj (25) and Naif Hazazi (25).
He starred at the recent Gulf Cup where the Green Falcons finished runners-up behind Qatar, earning tournament MVP honours and scoring twice in five matches. His goal against Yemen was arguably the best of the tournament.
Short in stature and capable of playing on either wing, his pace, energy and combination and understanding with Al-Shamrani and Al-Dawsari, built from years together at Al Hilal, make the 24-year-old a danger for any defence, especially his ability to evade defenders and get out of tight areas with a quick touch to the left or right.
Alireza Jahanbakhsh (Iran)
After making the move from Damash Gilan to Dutch side NEC in 2013, 21-year-old Jahanbakhsh has becoming one of the most promising youngsters in the Dutch game, being named as one of the best young players of the 2013/14 season by a Dutch website. Despite his efforts – he scored twice on the final day against Ajax to ensure NEC weren’t automatically relegated – NEC weren’t able to remain in the Eredivisie, losing the Promotion/Relegation Playoff to Sparta Rotterdam.
His form has continued in the second division, with seven goals from 18 games this season as NEC sit six points clear at the top of the Eerste Divisie. A natural winger with only a handful of caps under his belt, including three substitute appearances at the FIFA World Cup, his national team career is only just beginning. He comes into this Asian Cup in fine form, however, and with Iran hopefully playing more attacking football than in Brazil, this might be his time to shine and cement his place in the side.
Wu Lei (China)
As Chinese football looks to enter a new era after a decade of mismanagement at the national team level, the man to spearhead this change is Shanghai SIPG marksman Wu Lei. The 23-year-old unbelievably made his debut in 2006 when he was just 14, making him the youngest ever player to play in the CSL.
While Wu isn’t the tallest striker, he is a predator in the box and his consistency over the last five seasons has been remarkable for someone of his age, scoring 10 goals or more in every season since 2010 (2010-2012 in China League One) for a record of 76 goals in 179 matches.
China has lacked a natural goalscorer in recent years and four goals since September suggest Wu might just be the man to fill that void.