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AFC - DEFENDING Asian Cup champions Japan were handed a tough assignment for this year's tournament in China after being drawn in the same group with three-time winners Iran.

The Asian Cup, China 2004 draw, which was held at the People's Great Hall of China in Chongqing on Thursday evening, saw Japan, coached by Brazilian legend Zico being named as the top seeds in Group D. They will face Iran, Thailand and Oman during the group stage of the competition which runs from July 17 to August 7.

While the Thais and Omanis are expected to pose a tough challenge for the Japanese and Iranian sides, it will be the match-up of the two Asian giants, who have five Asian Cup titles between them, in Chongqing on July 28 that will capture the attention of Asian football fans.

It will be only the third meeting between the two teams at the Asian Cup finals. Japan won their most recent encounter during the group stages of the 1992 tournament in Hiroshima when their 1-0 victory eliminated Iran and set them on the road to their first ever Asian Cup triumph.

The two sides played to a goalless draw during the group stages of the 1988 tournament in Qatar.

Hosts China are set to kick off the tournament on July 17 when they face Bahrain at the Worker's Stadium in Beijing, following the opening ceremony.

Having finished fourth at the Asian Cup in Lebanon in 2000, as well as qualifying for the FIFA World Cup finals for the first time in 2002, China will be fancied to advance from Group A. However, they will not have things easy against the likes of Qatar, Indonesia and Bahrain, who were named as the Best Mover of the Year by FIFA after rising 41 spots in the World Ranking in 2003.

In Group B, World Cup 2002 semi-finalists Korea Republic will take on the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and former winners Kuwait.

The Kuwaitis should prove an especially tough test for the Koreans after posting the second best record in the qualifying rounds by winning 16 out of a possible 18 points.

The best record in the qualifying rounds was that of Saudi Arabia who went perfect by winning all six of their matches, scoring 31 goals and conceding only one in the process. The three-time Asian Cup champions and 2000 runners-up will face a daunting task in a tough Group C that includes Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Iraq.

With all four teams winning their respective qualifying groups, it will be a toss-up as to which of the sides will advance to the latter stages of the competition.

The top two teams in each group will advance to the knockout rounds, commencing with the quarter-finals on Friday, July 30.

The final will be played at the Beijing Worker's Stadium on Saturday, August 7, 2004.

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