SYDNEY (Reuters) - Hosts Australia were handed a tricky opening round at the 2015 Asian Cup finals when they were grouped with twice former champions South Korea, Oman and Kuwait in the draw at Sydney Opera House on Wednesday.
The Socceroos open the tournament against Kuwait in Melbourne on January 9 and will hope to be still in the reckoning when the final takes place 23 days later at Sydney's Olympic Stadium.
Although two teams will qualify from Group A for the quarter-finals, the hosts could have hoped for easier first round opposition than South Korea, who they will play in their final group match in Brisbane on January 17.
"You want to avoid them but are you going to avoid them the whole tournament? At some point you have to play a team," Australia coach Ange Postecoglou told reporters.
"That first game against Kuwait in Melbourne becomes a real critical one. We need to get off to a really strong start and if we can get those three points that will put pressure on the other teams."
Champions Japan were drawn in Group D with Jordan, who they lost against for the first time in World Cup qualifying last year, 2007 Asian Cup winners Iraq and the champions of this year's Asian Challenge Cup, which will be decided in May.
"We played against both teams in the World Cup qualifiers and both matches were tough, so I can expect it is going to be tough again," Japan Football Association general secretary Hara Hiromi said.
"We will do our best to play Australia in the final."
Iran, the top ranked Asian team in the FIFA rankings, will play a United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain in Group C with the talented young Emirati side looking likely to be their biggest rivals.
"Group C is quite balanced with three Arabic countries, neighbours, the rivals, a lot of tension and emotion," said Iran coach Carlos Queiroz, whose contract ends after this year's World Cup.
"It will tough but I think Iran will have a good chance. We must play the World Cup intensively as an Asian Cup preparation. And if that happens, I think whoever comes after me has a good chance to compete for a medal."
Uzbekistan face Saudi Arabia, China and North Korea in Group B and the French coach of the Chinese team, Alain Perrin, said he thought all four teams would fancy their chances of progressing.
"I know Uzbekistan very well and they are a strong team to play but I think in this group, everyone can lose points against anyone, so it's open," he said.
"It's important to have a good start and to create a good spirit because the quality of the teams are very close and maybe the spirit of the team can make the difference."
Australia progressing is the key to the success of the tournament and Oman coach Paul Le Guen, whose team embarrassed the Socceroos in a 2-2 draw in Sydney in World Cup qualifying last year, said he thought the hosts were favourites.
"They will host the competition, the crowd will be behind them, so we will be outsiders and they will be favourites but we will try to bother them like we did a few months ago," he said.
"I think it is the toughest group of the competition, it will be very difficult for us. We are a little bit unlucky but I keep smiling."
South Korea, like Japan, Australia and Iran, will be playing at the World Cup before the Asian Cup and Brazil was still the focus for their coach Hong Myung-bo.
"It's not an easy group, we've been grouped with the home team and as Australia have home advantage, it's going to be a very difficult match," he said.
"First we have to play the World Cup in Brazil and then we can think about playing in Australia."
(Editing by John O'Brien)