With the turn of the calendar year to 2019, Asian football fans will have their sights on the AFC Asian Cup 2019.
Twenty-four nations will be battling for the chance to be crowned the best in the region.
Naturally, there are the favourites such as defending champions Australia, four-time winners Japan and perennial contenders like South Korea.
However, more than the pride of nations battling each other, this is also the time for some of the best players in the region to take centre stage and perform for their country. Sometimes the difference between one team and another is so slim that the superstar player’s capacity is what separates them.
With that in mind, here are five of the biggest stars expected to shine in the AFC Asian Cup 2019.
HONOURABLE MENTION: NEIL ETHERIDGE – PHILIPPINES
We start off with a quick honourable mention, Neil Etheridge of the Philippines is one of the biggest names to feature in the competition.
With the Philippine Azkals making their tournament debut, much of the attention was initially whether Etheridge will be able to play for the country.
Cardiff City are currently in the Premier League which restricts Etheridge’s participation in the tournament, but his commitment cannot be questioned as he is set to play one match for the Philippines in the AFC Asian Cup.
MATHEW LECKIE – AUSTRALIA
We first take a look at the defending champions and Mathew Leckie immediately is one of the players to watch out for as they look to repeat as winners.
The 27-year-old winger plays club football for Bundesliga outfit Hertha BSC where he has scored seven goals in 32 appearances so far.
For the country, Leckie has featured in 59 international matches and scored nine goals.
Unfortunately, the injury bug has caught up with Leckie as reports reveal that he has a hamstring injury and could be out for as much as four weeks. That could mean he misses out on the group stages of the competition.
And the forward being an integral part of the team’s attacking philosophy, missing out even for a few matches would be a big blow. However, if Leckie makes it back or if Australia can progress long enough for him to feature in the later stages of the tournament, expect him to pick up where he left off.
YUYA OSAKO – JAPAN
Looking to return to the top of the AFC Asian Cup 2019 as champions for the fifth time, Japan have a plethora of talent at their disposal, with Yuya Osako arguably atop the list.
The forward plays for Werder Bremen in Germany and has been impressive so far in his tenure with 14 appearances and three goals.
A national team member since 2013, Osako has 37 international caps and 10 goals to his name.
With the team playing without veteran presence like Shinji Kagawa, the 28-year-old Osako should carry the load for the team who are heavily considered as contenders in the 2019 tournament.
CHANATHIP SONGKRASIN – THAILAND
The War Elephants are hoping to make a splash in the AFC Asian Cup 2019 after a disappointing performance in the recently-concluded AFF Suzuki Cup 2018.
However, the team will look entirely different as the big guns return, and that notably includes Chanathip Songkrasin.
The Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo star has been a breakout this year, winning the club’s Most Valuable Player award.
Making up for his diminutive stature with great pace and work rate, Chanathip is a fan favourite in his club and in Thailand where he’s had 46 international caps and five goals.
With the nation looking to make a statement in the AFC Asian Cup 2019, look at Chanathip to constantly be a threat for the War Elephants.
NGUYEN QUANG HAI – VIETNAM
Speaking of the AFF Suzuki Cup, Vietnam beat out Malaysia in the final to be crowned as champions for the first time in a decade and Nguyen Quang Hai was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
The Ha Noi FC player is only 21 years old but showed his excellent talent and maturity beyond his age as he led the Golden Dragons to glory in the AFF Suzuki Cup.
This time in the AFC Asian Cup, he should still play a key role in the team and with the team now about to face even stiffer competition in the likes of Iraq and Iran in the group stages, Quang Hai should continue his emergence as a top player for Vietnam.
With four goals in 12 international appearances – three from the AFF Suzuki Cup, big things are in store for Quang Hai.
SON HEUNG-MIN – KOREA REPUBLIC
Arguably the biggest name in the competition is South Korea’s Son Heung-min.
The 26-year-old is one of the important players in Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur and has been a mainstay in the club’s starting XI since his arrival.
With 112 appearances for the club, Son has scored 35 goals for Spurs. He’s been excellent for South Korea as well with 74 international caps and 23 goals to his name.
Still a young player but definitely established in his own right, a strong South Korean squad anchored by an in-form star definitely makes them a formidable opponent and in a tough AFC Asian Cup 2019, Son might add yet another chapter to his impressive career.