Five Asian Cup players not signed to European clubs to watch

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Jurgen Klopp jokes about wanting Mohamed Salah and Wataru Endo to return early from international duty. (0:43)

The 2023 Asian Cup is almost here. And yes, it's still being called that, even if China's withdrawal as hosts and its subsequent relocation to Qatar means it will now commence in January 2024, rather than the initially planned June 2023. Quirks of the calendar aside, however, it's one of the biggest tournaments in international football, the second-oldest continental tournament behind only the Copa America and one rising in prestige and recognition as Asian football continues to grow.

Across the coming month, it's an opportunity for the host nation Qatar to defend its crown from 2019 and invite those whose gaze is normally directed elsewhere to cast their attention to the best that Asia has to offer.

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There's plenty to discover. For while notable figures such as Son Heung-Min, Wataru Endō, Mathew Ryan and Mehdi Taremi may have established themselves across the continent and players hailing from the AFC are an increasingly common site at some of the world's biggest clubs, the Asian Cup will play host to a swathe of players mostly unknown to a global audience.

And while the modern age of instant information, communication and all manner of statistical breakdowns means that clubs not possessing the ability to properly scout the far-flung reaches of Asia (or the world, for that matter) is well and truly over, the Asian Cup will provide those within the game an opportunity to run their eyes over talent in a new setting, outside of their normal opposition, to see how they adapt and, potentially, how they can fit into their plans.

Indeed, given that the tournament will be taking place smack bang in the middle of the January transfer window, players will inevitably be working in something of an oversized shop window even in comparison to the one that normally exists for major international tournaments. It's something that coaches and players may even need to manage mid-tournament, with Australian defender Miloš Degenek transferring from Serbian outfit Red Star Belgrade to Saudi Pro League club Al Hilal for €3 million in the middle of the 2019 iteration of the tournament. Certainly, the concentration of talent, representatives, and potential suitors in one location can also serve to quicken proceedings.

Here are five players playing their club football outside of Europe to keep an eye on in the month ahead.

Akram Afif, Qatar

If Qatar were scoring a goal in their run to Asian Cup glory in 2019, there was a good chance that Afif was the one setting it up. The winger recorded an astounding 10 assists across the tournament, a figure that included three in a 4-0 semifinal win over the United Arab Emirates and two in a 3-1 win over Japan in the final. He also added one goal in the form of an 83rd-minute sealer from the penalty spot in that aforementioned decider, which proved something of a false dawn ahead of a winless home World Cup.

Scoring 26 goals and registering a further 15 assists as Al Sadd won the Qatar Stars League and scoring five times as they reached the semifinals of the Asian Champions League, Afif was subsequently named the Asian Footballer of the Year at the age of 23. The world, it appeared, was at his feet.

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"It's a pleasure to coach him. He's an unbelievable talent, and a big player, so I'm very happy for him," Barcelona boss Xavi Hernandez, then-coach of Al Sadd said at the time. "There are no limits for him. I have told him many times that he's an amazing player and he has many capacities to play football. He's a talent. He can play everywhere. It depends on him: his mentality, his ambition -- because he has everything to play football."

But despite appearing primed before a home World Cup to gather experience for a second go of things in Europe -- the attacker had previous stints in Belgium with Eupen and in Spain with Villarreal and Sporting Gijón -- and possessing the ability to make an impact at multiple destinations on the continent, Afif has remained in Qatar in the years since.

But the 27-year-old remains an attacking dynamo and one of the tournament's best talents. Starting on the left wing, he has scored 13 goals and registered eight assists in just 12 games for Al Sadd so far this season, as well as grabbing three assists as Qatar opened their 2026 World Cup qualifying campaign with an 8-1 thrashing of Afghanistan. Indeed, he's close to being elite in almost every statistical category of note so far this season, an impressive dribbler and passer who can score and finish.

Feras Al-Brikan, Saudi Arabia

Part of a rising generation of Saudi players, 23-year-old Al-Brikan already has over 30 caps in Saudi Arabia's attack and provided the assist for Saleh Al-Shehri's opening goal as the Green Falcons pulled off a famous 2-1 upset win over eventual champions Argentina in the 2022 World Cup.

Joining Al Ahli on a five-year deal last September after two years with Al Fateh, Al-Brikan's arrival at King Abdullah Sports City was somewhat overshadowed by the concurrent signings of the likes of Riyad Mahrez, Allan Saint-Maximin and Roberto Firmino. However, a case can be made that his signing has been one of the most important for a side that sits third heading into the Saudi Pro League's break for the Asian Cup.

Having already scored four goals and added a further assist in just five games at Al Fateh before his midseason move, Al-Brikan has added a further seven goals and four assists in 12 appearances for his new side -- a rate of 0.75 goals per 90 minutes and 1.18 score involvements per 90 across the two clubs, with the latter coming in as the fourth-best rate in the league behind only Georges-Kévin N'Koudou, Aleksandar Mitrović and a certain Cristiano Ronaldo.

An above-average aerial presence, Al-Brikan hasn't been getting a lot of shots away compared to his rivals in the Saudi Pro League this season. Still, he's proven lethal with the opportunities he does get, converting with 50% of his attempts on goal and 70% of those that are struck on target. It's form that has seen him established as coach Matthias Jaissle's starting centre-forward at Al Ahli amid reports that Firmino is already eyeing the exit.

Though a regular in the Saudi squads of Hervé Renard, Al-Brikan was controversially left out of new coach Roberto Mancini's plans for November's World Cup qualifiers. Nonetheless, the Italian coach has included him in his 26-player squad headed for Qatar for what will be the first senior Asian Cup for the attacker.

Joe Gauci, Australia

While Mathew Ryan remains firmly established as the Socceroos' captain and first-choice goalkeeper, Adelaide United keeper Gauci has emerged as his nation's preeminent backup and the most likely long-term challenger for the No. 1 shirt. However, with Ryan in a race against time to be ready for Australia's opening fixture against India after suffering a fractured cheekbone with club side AZ Alkmaar, Gauci and fellow Socceroos teammate Lawrence Thomas are potentially battling it out for a rare competitive start.

Playing behind what is a frequently leaky backline in Adelaide, Gauci has come up big time for his side since he emerged as a starter in 2021-22, delighting his supporters and infuriating his foes with a habit of turning into a brick wall in games and keeping his side in contests they really have no right to be in. To provide an example, Western United recorded an expected goals (xG) tally of 2.84 in a meeting with the Reds earlier this A-League Men season, only for Gauci to produce a man-of-the-match performance as Adelaide and their 1.63 xG won 3-1.

The 23-year-old is the equal leader in saves across the opening 10 weeks of the A-League Men season, which will not pause for the Asian Cup, and is third in goals prevented and save percentage. Importantly, he also hasn't been officially credited with a single error that led to any of the 17 goals the Reds have conceded.

Well aware that it was more a matter of when, not if, the young keeper made an overseas move -- even if he had made a conscious decision to establish himself and gain senior experience at home before casting his eyes abroad -- Adelaide inked Gauci to a new deal last April that will tie him to Hindmarsh Stadium until the end of the 2025-26 campaign.

Given that the Reds are willing to let players leave for the right deal -- with Craig Goodwin to Al Wehda, Mohamed Touré to Stade de Reims, and Nestory Irankunda to Bayern Munich all recent examples -- that contract shouldn't serve as an impediment to any club looking to bring Gauci in, but it will ensure they'll need to pay for the privilege.

Mohanad "Mimi" Ali, Iraq

Those who followed the 2019 Asian Cup would remember Ali as one of its breakout talents, starting all three games of an undefeated group stage for the Lions of Mesopotamia as an 18-year-old, as well as in their 1-0 loss at the hands of eventual champions Qatar in the round of 16.

Having earned a call-up thanks to his goal-scoring exploits in Al-Shorta's title-winning season, the teenager netted goals against Vietnam and Yemen in his side's opening games -- the latter a fantastic individual effort in which he stole the ball from the defence deep in their half, weaved in and out of several defenders in search of space, before drilling an effort into the net from the top of the box.

His performances quickly put him on the international radar, albeit some of the reported links to European giants were rather eyebrow-raising, and he eventually joined Qatari club Al Duhail as he continued to feature and score for Iraq during the opening games of 2022 World Cup qualification.

Unfortunately for Ali, the years since have not seen him kick on in the manner that the Asian Cup showing suggested he may have, struggling to establish himself in his new club's plans during multiple loan stints, including time spent in Portugal with Portimonense and Greece with Aris Salonika. This period has been marked by struggles to remain healthy, lowlighted by a ruptured ACL and meniscus suffered while in the Greek top flight.

Nonetheless, after returning to Al-Shorta and earning a national team recall in October, the striker known by fans as "Mimi" scored the winning goal off the bench in Iraq's 1-0 away win over Vietnam in World Cup qualifying this past November, 897 days after his last goal for his country. If Ali can recapture the magic of the last Asian Cup this time around will bear watching.

Zhu Chenjie, China

A 6-foot centre-back, Zhu has long been one of the more promising talents in Chinese football, setting a new club record when he debuted for Shanghai Shenhua three days before his 18th birthday back in 2018, and just over a month later becoming their youngest-ever goal-scorer.

He would go on to make 30 appearances across all competitions for Shenhua the following season, highlighted by what is now the first of two career Chinese FA Cup triumphs. These efforts saw him named the Chinese Football Association's Young Player of the Year, as well as a member of the Chinese Super League Team of the Year.

Now well established as a starter for and occasionally wearing the armband for Shenhua, who finished fifth in the 2023 Chinese Super League season, the 23-year-old has been a part of the senior national team setup since that breakout 2019 campaign and was a constant presence in the team's defence during their ultimately unsuccessful, heavily COVID-impacted attempts to qualify for the 2022 World Cup.

After two pandemic-affected seasons, Zhu played his most league minutes since 2019 across the 2023 Chinese Super League season, starting 23 games. He also started in China's first 2026 World Cup qualifiers in November, a 2-1 win over Thailand and a 3-0 loss to South Korea.