Jan 27, 2024, 03:30 AM ET
In the blink of an eye, the 2023 AFC Asian Cup is now down to the knockout round.
Two weeks of riveting group-stage action has delivered a last 16 with plenty of usual suspects but also a handful of surprise high-fliers.
There will be no more second chances with teams needing to win four matches on the trot from now till Feb. 10 if they are to be crowned champions of Asia.
Here, we look ahead at the storylines each round of 16 tie has produced.
Australia vs. Indonesia (Jan. 28)
Appearing at the AFC Asian Cup for the first time since 2007, Indonesia were the final team to scrape through to the round of 16 but face a massive test in the form of Australia on Sunday. KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images
A real David vs. Goliath clash if there ever was one, with Australia placed 25th in the world while Indonesia are now the lowest-ranked team in the competition in 146th following the elimination of Hong Kong.
Making their first Asian Cup appearance since they co-hosted the tournament in 2007, Indonesia reaching the knockout round has been nothing short of a fairy tale — but surely they could do the unthinkable?
They gave a decent account of themselves in defeats to Iraq and Japan with their sole victory thus far coming against regional rivals Vietnam, which means they are yet to cause a major upset.
This is far from the strongest outfit Australia have fielded at recent Asian Cups but they are still a formidable side that will be expected to negotiate their way past this test, even if the jury is still out on whether they have what it takes to go all the way and win a second crown.
Tajikistan vs. United Arab Emirates (Jan. 28)
As the only debutants at the current AFC Asian Cup, Tajikistan have surpassed all expectations in reaching the round of 16 — where they will meet United Arab Emirates. Robert Cianflone/Getty Images
As the only tournament debutants at this edition of the Asian Cup, Tajikistan have exceeded expectations in their run to the round of 16.
In their toughest test so far, they only lost 1-0 to Qatar and also drew 0-0 with China to suggest they have what it takes to compete with some of the continent’s traditional heavyweights.
As semifinalists last time out and after finishing third in 2015, United Arab Emirates are certainly in that bracket.
Nonetheless, the Emiratis appear to be in a period of transition as one of the younger teams in the competition with an average age of 25, and could perhaps be more vulnerable to a shock loss than they were in previous editions.
Iraq vs. Jordan (Jan. 29)
Iraq’s impressive displays thus far at the 2023 AFC Asian Cup have been inspired by Aymen Hussein, who is currently the tournament’s leading scorer with five goals from three matches. KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images
Having won their first and only Asian Cup back in 2007, Iraq have slowly emerged as contenders — even if they remain dark horses behind the expected contenders.
They did extremely well to finish top of Group D ahead of Japan but a couple of vulnerabilities were exposed in their most-recent 3-2 win over bottom side Vietnam.
Jordan will pose a tough test even if they somehow contrived to throw away a group winners finish to only scrape through as one of the four best-performing third-placed teams.
The Iraqis will be confident in the firepower they possess especially with leading scorer Aymen Hussein — who has already scored five goals — to call upon, although Jordan do have a match winner of their own in Musa Al-Taamari.
Qatar vs. Palestine (Jan. 29)
Defending champions and hosts Qatar are the only side at the 2023 AFC Asian Cup to have won all three of their group-stage games and are yet to concede a goal. Etsuo Hara/Getty Images
As hosts and defending champions, expectations surrounding Qatar are understandably sky high — especially given they are looking to make amends after a disappointing showing on home soil at the last FIFA World Cup.
It has thus far been business as usual for the Qataris, who were just one of two sides to win all their group-stage matches, and they are also one from two yet to concede at the tournament.
They did however find themselves largely frustrated in 1-0 wins over both Tajikistan and China and could also be once again up against similar opposition in the form of Palestine.
Reaching the knockout round for the first time, Palestine have been a real feel-good story of the tournament and will have no shortage of motivation to keep their run going and offer their people back home something to cheer about.
Uzbekistan vs. Thailand (Jan. 30)
Thailand are yet to be breached at the 2023 AFC Asian Cup after a 2-0 win over Kyrgyz Republic was followed by stubborn displays in goalless stalemates against Oman and Saudi Arabia. Noushad Thekkayil/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Now into the knockout round of the Asian Cup for a 7th consecutive tournament but having only reached the semifinals once in 2011, Uzbekistan’s breakthrough into Asian football’s upper echelon of teams has been long awaited.
It remains to be seen if this will be their year but they will be fancied to reach the quarterfinals at least, even if their tie against Thailand is not as straightforward as it seems — especially considering the War Elephants are the only team other than Qatar whose defence has not been breached.
The Thais have only won one game so far but they are proving quite difficult to beat after grinding out 0-0 draws against both Oman and Saudi Arabia, opponents they ordinarily would be expected to lose to.
A couple of Europe-based starlets could prove to be the difference with Uzbekistan’s Abbosbek Fayzullaev and Thailand’s Suphanat Mueanta widely considered to be among the continent’s brightest young talents.
Saudi Arabia vs. South Korea (Jan. 30)
Saudi Arabia have been steady if unspectacular at the 2023 AFC Asian Cup but will need to raise their game if they are to see off South Korea in a massive knockout round tie on Tuesday. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
Undoubtedly the biggest tie of the last 16, both Saudi Arabia and South Korea are looking to claim long overdue title triumphs but, for one at least, their drought will go on for a while longer.
After some unconvincing displays, South Korea had to settle for a second-place finish in Group E and, while that meant they were able to avoid a meeting with Japan, coming up against Saudi Arabia is hardly any easier.
The South Koreans pose a real attacking threat but it has been at the back where they have looked suspect, with their six goals conceded the joint-third worst at the tournament.
Saudi Arabia have not exactly fired on all cylinders with just four goals from two wins and a draw, but both teams always have the potential to find another gear come crunch time — which should make for a tantalising encounter come Tuesday.
Bahrain vs. Japan (Jan. 31)
Several players introduced in Japan’s final Group D game against Indonesia — including two-goal hero Ayase Ueda — would likely be feeling that they did enough in the 3-1 win to keep their starting XI berth for the round of 16. Koji Watanabe/Getty Images
As the Asian Cup’s record four-time champions, Japan have had a couple of hiccups and had to settle for a runners-up finish in Group D.
They have however seemed to steady the ship a little in their last outing — a 3-1 triumph over Indonesia — and a handful of players introduced into the starting XI for that game could just prove to be the answer to their previous issues.
With two goals in that match, Ayase Ueda should now be expecting to be Japan’s first-choice as the focal point in attack, while the likes of Reo Hatate and Ritsu Doan also look like they could be crucial in unlocking Bahrain.
The Bahrainis showed immense spirit to come from third place and finish top of Group E and should offer the Samurai Blue a stern test despite their less-illustrious reputation.
Iran vs. Syria (Jan. 31)
With stars such as Mehdi Taremi and Sardar Azmoun, Iran’s golden generation are once again through to the AFC Asian Cup knockout round — but only time will tell if this is the year they go on to win a first title since 1976. Zhizhao Wu/Getty Images
For all the quality that has emerged over the past decade, Iran still do not have anything concrete to show for it and it does look like this Asian Cup could be the final chance for their golden generation to end their 48-year wait for continental glory.
A 4-1 rout of Palestine in their opener provided an idea of how irrepressible they can be, although the narrow 1-0 win over Hong Kong which followed showed they are also prone to the occasional off-colour performance.
Syria have an excellent record of matching it with Asia’s top dogs and even came close to qualifying for the 2018 World Cup after giving Australia a real scare, yet this particular team is missing some star power.
Iran have no shortage of that in the form of Mehdi Taremi, Saman Ghoddos and Alireza Jahanbakhsh and should be firm favourites in the tie that will round off the last 16.