The draw for the continent’s flagship international football event took place in Doha on Thursday, where the 24 teams were split into six groups.
The tournament was originally scheduled to be played in June and July this year but will kick off on January 12 next year after China withdrew from hosting due to the country’s COVID-19 restrictions.
Three-time champion Iran will begin its quest for a first title in 47 years with a game against Palestine in Al Rayyan’s Education City Stadium on January 14.
The two sides last met in a friendly in 2018, which finished 1-1.
Palestine will be playing in a third successive Asian Cup, hoping to progress beyond the group phase for the first time.
Amir Qalenoei’s men will then take on Hong Kong at the Khalifa International Stadium on January 19 – in a repeat of the double header in the previous World Cup qualifiers, with Iran coming out on top on both occasions.
Hong Kong will make a return to the continental showdown after a 55-year absence in the finals.
Iran will be back in the Education City Stadium for the final round of the group fixtures to square off against the UAE – runner-up on home soil in 1996 – on January 23.
Iran defeated the UAE by one goal twice en route to qualification for the 2022 World Cup.
The Emiratis hosted the Asian Cup in 2019, when their campaign finished with a 4-0 defeat against Qatar in the semifinals.
“We will play at the highest level of international football in Asia so we’re not going to have an easy task out there,” Qalenoei said after the draw, adding: “All the teams must have been very strong to qualify for the event and there won’t be any such thing as easy opponents.
“We will take it game by game but we have to think of facing teams like South Korea, Japan, and Australia in the latter stages. The Asian Cup has already begun for us and we should seize each and every second of the upcoming training camps to prepare well for the tournament,” said Qalenoei, who replaced Portuguese Carlos Queiroz in March – back on Iran’s bench 16 years after his team suffered a shootout defeat against South Korea in the Asian Cup quarterfinals.
Queiroz led Iran to the semifinals in 2019, where his men fell to a 3-0 loss to Japan.
Queiroz will be taking part in the event for a third time in a row, this time with defending champion and host Qatar.
Qatar will open the competition against Lebanon in Al Khor’s Al Bayt Stadium on January 12 in Group A – also featuring China and Tajikistan.
“We know exactly what is in front of us and what is next, but the next step is to think about ourselves, it doesn’t matter which teams we are going to play,” Queiroz said.
“What is important is to be ready.”
Australia, champion in 2015, is in Group B alongside Uzbekistan, Syria and India.
“Every draw is tough, but very happy with that draw,” said Australia coach Graham Arnold, who took the Socceroos to the knockout rounds of the World Cup last year before bowing out to eventual champion Argentina in the last 16.
“Obviously having the familiarity of playing here in Qatar will help us as well,” said Arnold.
Japan – the most decorated team in the competition with four titles – will step into Group D fixtures against Iraq, Indonesia, and Vietnam on the back of an impressive World Cup run which saw the Blue Samurai beat Germany and Spain to win the group before falling to a shootout heartbreak against Croatia in the last 16.
Newly-appointed German manager Juergen Klinsmann will steer two-time winner South Korea and Tottenham striker Son Heung-min against Malaysia, Jordan and Bahrain in Group E.
“I spoke to a lot of my players, they are all over Europe, they play in the K-League, they play in China, they play in Japan and they’re all very excited,” said Klinsmann.
“We have a strong team. We look at ourselves in the mirror and say we’re going to go to Qatar to win the tournament.”
Group F will feature Saudi Arabia – also a three-time champion – Thailand, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Oman, which will have another ex-Iran manager on its bench in Croatian Branko Ivankovic.
“We will go into the tournament with high ambitions. Saudi Arabia are the favorites and they played well during the World Cup but we also played well against them twice in the World Cup qualifiers. Two teams will automatically make the next stage and that is our first goal,” said the Croatian who led Iran to a third-spot finish in 2004.
Top two of each group plus four best third-place finishers will advance to the round of 16, with the finals showpiece set to be staged at the Al Bayt Stadium on February 10.