The Iranian legend is the tournament’s record goalscorer, having found the back of the net 14 times over three editions, yet the former striker never lifted the trophy for his country, whose wait for the title stretches back to 1976, the-afc.com reported.
But on the back of a strong 2018 FIFA World Cup and with head coach Carlos Queiroz having been in charge for almost eight years, Daei thinks the time could be now for the Iranians, although it is the side from East Asia he considers as the favorite.
“I think Japan are the favorites to become champions but I also think our team is at a good level and ready to perform well and I hope we can reach the final,” said Daei.
“Japan showed at the World Cup that they can play great football and they have improved a lot. So, I think Iran and Japan, if they don’t happen to face each other in earlier stages, have the highest chance to play the final against each other.
“Our side has really progressed in the past two or three years. The players have been together for a long time so there is a good understanding between them."
Iran’s World Cup display earned it many plaudits after the Central Asian side defeated Morocco and then put in excellent displays against Spain and Portugal before narrowly missing out on last 16 qualification.
The team’s defensive solidarity stood out in particular, with some of the world’s best attacking talents left frustrated, but Daei also had praise for the forwards Queiroz has at his disposal.
“I think if we can reach the final then Alireza Jahanbakhsh will be one of our key players, while Saman Ghoddos is another who could perform well at the Asian Cup,” noted Daei.
“Mehdi Taremi could finish as top scorer if he plays in his regular position at the front of our attack, but it depends on the coach’s tactics. But there are also other good strikers in Asia that will challenge for this award.
“Sardar Azmoun, meanwhile, is a great player who can play for big teams in Europe in the coming years.”
Iran is one of the most successful teams at the Asian Cup, with three titles to its name, but it has now been for than 40 years since it was last crowned champion, after winning three successive tournaments between 1968 and 1976.
Daei reached the semifinals in both 1996 and 2004, but suffered the agony of elimination on penalties both times as Saudi Arabia and China progressed to the final.
“There are many reasons why we haven’t won it in so long; for example, we should have won the tournament in 1996, but we lost to Saudi Arabia on penalties and I missed one of them,” admitted Daei.
“I think our best games were in 1996 in the UAE, where we only finished third despite deserving the title. We played so well and were unlucky not to become champions.”
Iran will open its Group D campaign against Yemen on January 7 before facing Vietnam and Iraq, which eliminated Iran on penalties at the quarterfinal stage four years ago in Australia.