MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — China faces a daunting challenge just to qualify for the 2015 Asian Cup after landing in the same group as three-time champion Saudi Arabia and 2007 winner Iraq in the preliminary draw on Tuesday.
Two teams from each of the five, four-team groups are guaranteed of qualifying for the finals, which will be staged in Australia in January 2015, as well as the best third-place team.
China was drawn into Group C with the Saudis and Iraq — the finalists of the 2007 edition — and Indonesia.
Defending champion Japan, 2011 runner-up Australia, South Korea and North Korea all qualified automatically for the finals, leaving 20 nations competing for the other 11 spots.
"The preliminary draw has thrown up some great contests, and we are sure to see some exciting matches over the next 18 months," Zhang Jilong, the acting president of the Asian Football Confederation, said. "We're thrilled that the AFC's newest member, Australia, will be hosting Asia's flagship national team competition for the first time."
Qualifying begins next February and runs until March 2014.
Three-time champion Iran was drawn with Kuwait, Thailand and Lebanon in Group B, while neighbors Jordan and Syria were both drawn into Group A.
Australia has twice hosted the Olympics and the rugby World Cup, but Football Federation Australia chairman Frank Lowy is touting the 2015 Asian Cup as the biggest football competition ever staged in the country.
"It will be a feast of international football, and we're confident that Australians will get behind all 16 teams, as we have shown for other major events."
Asian Cup qualifying pools:
Group A: Jordan, Syria, Oman, Singapore
Group B: Iran, Kuwait, Thailand, Lebanon
Group C: Iraq, China, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia
Group D: Qatar, Bahrain, Yemen, Malaysia
Group E: Uzbekistan, United Arab Emirates, Vietnam, Hong Kong