India is the lowest-ranked side
With doubts looming over skipper Baichung Bhutia's availability and taking into account their unimpressive outings in the friendly matches, India face a daunting task in their bid to make an impact in the Asian Cup football tournament which kicks off on Friday.
India, who are playing in the tournament after a gap of 27 years by virtue of winning the AFC Challenge Cup, lost seven out of nine international friendlies in the build-up to the continent's showpiece event, including a 1-9 and a 0-5 thrashing at the hands of Kuwait and UAE.
The morale of the players took a beating thanks to the spat between coach Bob Houghton and manager Pradip Chowdhury, reportedly over the issue of injury to several players.
Laid low by a calf muscle injury since the middle of September, Bhutia is facing a race against time to be fit for India's opening match against Australia on January 10.
Among the 16 participating nations, India is the lowest-ranked side at 142nd in FIFA charts, and has no realistic chance of qualifying from a group that comprises Australia, South Korea and Bahrain.
Image: Indian players practice during a warmup session at Al Wakrah Stadium in Doha
'We are hoping that we can rise to the occasion'
Australia are the highest-ranked side at 26th while South Korea are 40th in FIFA charts. While both the nations qualified for the World Cup, Bahrain missed the bus to South Africa in play-off.
The All India Football Federation has spent nearly Rs 20 crore for the preparation with 30 players being paid salary for a period of eight months from June last year till the end of this month. The players have been together for that period training in Dubai and Portugal.
Houghton and the Indian football establishment have, however, been modest in their ambition looking at the tournament as the beginning of a new era.
"I hope it works as a catalyst for further strides ahead. But, if we go there and perform poorly then we are back to square one," Houghton, the experienced Englishman who have coached the national sides of China and Uzbekistan, said.
"It's a great feeling and I hope the exposure by playing against some of the big names in world football would do a lot of good for Indian football. We are hoping that we can rise to the occasion," said Bhutia.
Image: Indian players warm up during a practice session at Al Wakrah Stadium in Doha
Australia, South Korea favourties to win the tournament
India finished runners-up in the third edition in 1964 when six teams competed in Israel. That phase is still referred to as being the golden era of Indian football.
But football has, since those glory days, gone backwards with acute lack of infrastructure and professionalism as compared to other countries in Asia. It was hardly surprising that India failed to make any impact in the 1984 Asian Cup, their last appearance in the tournament.
Heavyweights Australia, Japan and South Korea, three of the four Asian representatives in the 2010 World Cup, are among favourites to win the tournament, while West Asian giants Iran and Saudi Arabia are perennial title contenders.
Iraq, who stunned the world by winning the 2007 edition, and Kuwait, after coming off a morale-boosting victory at the Gulf Cup, could be the dark horses.
Hosts Qatar will play against Uzbekistan in the opener at the magnificent Al Khalifa Stadium on Friday.
Image: Qatar players play during a warm up session in Doha
Big names in Socceroos line up
Coached by the widely travelled Frenchman Bruno Metsu, Qatar will be cheered on by the home crowd, but advancing from a group that features Kuwait and China, is going to difficult.
How Qatar fares in staging such a high-profile tournament will be closely watched after FIFA, surprisingly, awarded the country the 2022 World Cup ahead of more fancied bids from Australia, Japan, South Korea and the United States.
Australia have named a squad comprising mainly of stars from Europe, including Everton's Tim Cahill, Galatasaray's Lucas Neill and Harry Kewell, Mark Schwarzer of Fulham and Brett Emerton of Blackburn Rovers. They would look to improve on the quarter-final exit in their debut Asian Cup in 2007.
The players' age, however, could be the weak link for the Socceroos with many of them above thirty and who have failed to deliver at the World Cup, exiting in the group stage.
They did not have a great build-up to the tournament either losing to Egypt 0-3 and sharing points with UAE.
Image: Australia's TIm Cahill arrive at the Doha International Airport
Japan have brought a mix of seasoned and young players
Three-time champions Japan have brought a mix of seasoned and young players and expectations are high after they reached the round of 16 in the World Cup with wins over Cameroon and Denmark in the group stage.
Former AC Milan coach Alberto Zaccheroni has been forced to pick several fresh faces after veteran defenders Yuji Nakazawa, Marcus Tulio Tanaka and Catania forward Takayuki Morimoto suffered injuries. He is, however, excited about his side's prospect after a 1-0 win over Argentina in October.
Zaccheroni has called up eight Europe-based players, including World Cup veterans Keisuke Honda of CSKA Moscow, Wolfsburg's Makoto Hasebe, young Bundesliga sensation Shinji Kagawa of Borussia Dortmund, Yuto Nagatomo of Italian side Cesena, Schalke 04's Atsuto Uchida, Daisuke Matsui of Tom Tomsk and goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima of Belgium's Lierse SK.
Image: Keisuke Honda during a training session in Doha
South Korea will rely on Park Ji-sung
South Korea are expected to mount a strong challenge for their first title in 51 years but the loss of key striker Park Chu-young, injured after celebrating a goal for French club AS Monaco, was a big blow.
The Koreans, who reached the last 16 of the World Cup, will look to in-form midfielders Park Ji-sung of Manchester United and Bolton Wanderers' Lee Chung-yong for inspiration, but they need someone to convert the opportunities into goals.
Saudi Arabia failed to reach the World Cup finals for the first time since 1990 and the Gulf side would surely be detirmined to win the title they had won three times before, the last being in 1984.
The Saudis, who suffered a heart-breaking loss to Iraq in the final of the last edition, would want to make amends by winning the coveted trophy for the fourth time.
Image: South Korea's Lee Chung-young heads the ball during a training session ahead of the Asian Cup