While Japan still tops the bookmaker’s list as favorites to lift the 2023 AFC Asian Cup trophy, this tournament has shown that the gap that has historically existed between the likes of Japan, South Korea, Australia and the rest of the Confederation, no longer exists. The vast majority of matches have been extremely competitive.

The Group Stage saw Japan and South Korea stumble and fail to finish top of their respective groups as was anticipated. Even Australia, who according to the bookmakers are the 3rd strongest team in the tournament, failed to finish their Group Stage with a perfect record. That honor went to hosts Qatar, Iran, and Iraq.

The storylines came from outside the traditional powers of Asia. Tajikistan, playing in its first AFC Asian Cup, used an extra-time goal in the final group-stage game to defeat Lebanon. That was Tajikistan’s first win in a tournament of this magnitude. In total, seven goals in the group stage came in stoppage time to either give teams the lead or tie the game. The parity in the 2023 Asian Cup has been making it stand out against other tournaments. Moreover, that extends into the knockout stages.

The ‘Round of 16’ saw the favorites finally play up to their potential. The top match was Saudi Arabia, led by ex-Italy boss Roberto Mancini faced tournament favorites South Korea, led by ex-USA National team coach Jurgen Klinsmann. South Korea needed a 99th-minute equalizer to push the match to penalties where Klinsmann’s men eliminated the Saudis. Australia breezed past Indonesia (4-0) while Japan finally put together a great performance in defeating Bahrain 3-1. Tajikistan continued its sensational story with a win on penalties over the United Arab Emirates, which was a semifinalist in the 2019 Asian Cup.

Quarterfinals next in the 2023 AFC Asian Cup

The quarterfinals will take place on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 2 and 3. It kicks off with surprise package Tajikistan taking on Jordan followed by what is the most anticipated quarterfinal encounter. Australia takes on South Korea in a matchup of two teams that reached the knockout stage of the 2022 World Cup. South Korea’s squad features the talented Son Heung-min of Tottenham and Wolves’ star Hwang Hee-chan. Australia came to Qatar with a very balanced mix of young and experienced players. The Aussies should give a tired South Korean side a run for their money.

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Saturday opens with another interesting quarterfinal match between Iran and Japan. As mentioned earlier, Iran went through the Group Stage with a perfect record. It needed penalties to get past Syria in the Round of 16. The quarterfinals close out with hosts Qatar taking on a very strong Uzbekistan side.

No easy road to the trophy

The final 7 matches which will decide who will lift the AFC Asian Cup are well worth checking out. In the U.S., all matches are being shown on Paramount+. For the full schedule with kickoff times, see our Asian Cup TV schedule page.

PHOTOS: IMAGO