Four-time champion Japan favorites at Asian Cup

The defending champions were drawn in Group D with Jordan, 2007 champion Iraq and the Palestinian team for the tournament which starts Friday

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Coach Javier Aguirre and his Japan squad are dealing with some behind-the-scenes distractions that could complicate their bid for a record fifth Asian Cup title.

The defending champions were drawn in Group D with Jordan, 2007 champion Iraq and the Palestinian team for the tournament which starts Friday. After victories in 1992, 2000, 2004 and 2011, another title would solidify Japan’s place as the region’s powerhouse.

But Japan is coming off a disappointing World Cup performance, where the team failed to advance beyond the group stage in Brazil, and the subsequent departure of head coach Alberto Zaccheroni.

This will be Aguirre’s first major event at the helm, but the 56-year-old Mexican will arrive in Australia with some baggage.

According to Spanish media reports, authorities in Spain are investigating Aguirre and some 30 other people on suspicion of fixing a league game against Levante when he managed Zaragoza in May 2011.

Aguirre has denied the allegations and insists the investigation won’t affect his team, but any developments during the tournament would be a major distraction. Aguirre could be asked to appear in Spain if the complaint is accepted by a Valencia court and a full-scale investigation is opened.

Japan will be counting on Europe-based players Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki to improve on the disappointing World Cup result. Veteran striker Yoshito Okubo, who scored a J-League-leading 18 goals for Kawasaki Frontale this season, was not included in the 23-man squad.

Honda has scored seven goals for AC Milan this season and Okazaki has eight for Mainz, but Kagawa has struggled to regain the form that saw him score 21 goals for Borussia Dortmund from 2010-2012. In 18 matches this season, Kagawa has only two goals.

“Japan is always one of the favorites in this tournament,” Aguirre said. “If we win the Asian Cup, we can tackle the rest of 2015 feeling refreshed.”

Led by Younis Mahmoud, Iraq will be seeking to advance with Japan out of Group D. Mahmood’s late header helped Iraq beat Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the 2007 final, and the captain figures to play a central role for coach Hakeem Shakir.

Iraq will also need big contributions from Karrar Jassim, also a member of the 2007 squad. Jassim scored the deciding goal against North Korea to allow Iraq to progress to the quarterfinals in 2011.

Two-time quarterfinalists Jordan will be led by striker Al Saify, who has earned more than 70 international caps since debuting for his country in 2007. Al Saify helped his nation progress past the group stage in 2011 and will be hoping to take his team a step further in Australia.

The Palestinians are the tournament newcomer, securing a berth after winning the AFC Challenge Cup in the Maldives.

Ahmed Al Hassan took over as coach from Jamal Mahmoud in October, giving him only a matter of months to prepare for the biggest football tournament in the team’s history.

“It will be difficult for Palestine at the Asian Cup,” Mahmoud said. “But they have good players and my assistant is now the head coach - I think he can have a good result at the Asian Cup.”

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