FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan picks the best midfielders to look out for at AFC Asian Cup 2019.
1) Stephan Schrock (Philippines)
Since making his international bow in 2011, Stephan Schrock has established himself as an influential member of the Philippines, which should come as no surprise considering his European experience with established Bundesliga outfits Hoffenheim and Eintracht Frankfurt.
Having previously been frozen out of the side under former coach Thomas Dooley, Schrock’s return since Sven-Goran Eriksson took over has been a huge boost for the Azkals given he is evidently the most technically-gifted player at their disposal.
Expectations may not be overly lofty for Philippines given they will be making their tournament debut at AFC Asian Cup 2019, but, with players like Schrock looking to make the most of their first – and possibly only – appearance on Asian football’s biggest stage, they could just cause an upset or two.
2) Gaku Shibasaki (Japan)
It was only two years ago that Gaku Shibasaki grabbed the headlines with two goals against Real Madrid in the FIFA Club World Cup final, a match which Kashima Antlers ultimately lost 4-2 in extra-time following a valiant display.
Since then, the pint-sized midfield conductor has ventured Spain with second-tier outfit Tenerife, starred at the 2018 FIFA World Cup for Japan, and earned another move to La Liga’s Getafe.
The 26-year-old’s calm and languid style of play may not always catch the eye, but his composure and distribution will set the stage of many of the Samurai Blue’s attacking forays at United Arab Emirates 2019.
3) Salem Al-Dawsari (Saudi Arabia)
One of the most talented individuals to emerge from Saudi Arabia in recent years, the time is nigh for Salem Al-Dawsari to lead the Green Falcons into the future.
Following the retirements of stalwarts such as Osama Hawsawi and Taisir Al-Jassim, the Saudi Arabians are crying out for leaders to emerge and – at 27 – Al-Dawsari is fast approaching his peak.
Having always been blessed with an abundance of pace and skill, the Al Hilal man has introduced a new level of maturity to his game, and the onus will be on him to provide the attacking impetus in a Saudi Arabia outfit with limited forward options.
4) Chanathip Songkrasin (Thailand)
Thailand will gladly welcome back talismanic playmaker Chanathip Songkrasin at Asian Cup 2019 after he was absent from their ill-fated AFF Suzuki Cup 2018 campaign, which ended with a semi-final elimination at the hands of Malaysia.
Having been named in the J1 League’s Best XI following the conclusion of his first full season with Consadole Sapporo, the 25-year-old is now on the verge of establishing himself as one of the best players not just in Southeast Asia, but the entire continent.
Even in the third round of qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Chanathip showed he has what it takes to carve apart even the best defences in Asia and should thrive on the spotlight in United Arab Emirates.
5) Nguyen Quang Hai (Vietnam)
In a stunning rise mirroring that of Chanathip, Nguyen Quang Hai has spent 2018 emerging as the brightest prospect in Southeast Asian football, beginning with a star turn in Vietnam’s run to the AFC U-23 Championship final in January and signing off by being named the Most Valuable Player at the AFF Suzuki Cup.
Despite coach Park Hang-seo experimenting with him in central midfield, the 21-year-old still does his best work in the attacking third with his ability to unlock an opposition defence either with a mazy dribble or an incisive through-ball with his wand-like left foot.
Vietnam may have a tough group to get out off coming up against the likes of Iran and Iraq, but they have made a habit of upsetting the odds and – with Quang Hai – have a genuine star capable of winning a match with one moment of brilliance.
6) Lee Jae-sung (Korea Republic)
Having patiently established himself in his domestic K League for the past few years, Lee Jae-sung finally earned his move to Europe this summer when 2. Bundesliga outfit Holstein Kiel secured his services.
With three league titles and an AFC Champions League crown to his name, as well as having won the K League’s Most Valuable Player in 2017, the 26-year-old’s credentials in Asia speaks for itself.
Considering Son Heung-min will be absent for the Taegeuk Warriors‘ first two games at Asian Cup 2019, and with young gun Lee Seung-woo not in the squad, much of the creative responsibility will fall on the shoulders of Lee, who was one of the few players to emerge from the World Cup with an enhanced reputation.