Three-time champions Saudi Arabia were placed in the same group as 2007 winners Iraq and China in the preliminary draw for the 2015 Asian Cup made in Melbourne on Tuesday.
Iraq, which beat the Saudis in the Jakarta final five years ago, headline Group C along with 2004 runners-up China and 2007 co-hosts Indonesia.
Triple champions Iran will face 1980 winners Kuwait, Thailand and Lebanon in Group B, while Uzbekistan will meet Hong Kong, 2007 quarter-finalists Vietnam and the United Arab Emirates in Group E.
Syria were drawn with Jordan in Group A along with Oman and Singapore, while 2011 hosts and quarter-finalists Qatar make up Group D with Bahrain, Yemen and Malaysia.
The top two teams from each group and the best third-placed team among all the groups will qualify for the tournament proper to be held in Australia in 2015. The qualifiers begin in February.
Reigning Asian Cup champions Japan, hosts and runners-up Australia, third-placed South Korea, AFC Challenge Cup 2012 winners North Korea and the champions of the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup gain direct berths in the final competition in Australia.
“The preliminary draw has thrown up some great contests and we are sure to see some exciting matches over the next 18 months,” said Asian Football Confederation (AFC) acting president Zhang Jilong.
“We’re thrilled that AFC’s newest member, Australia, will be hosting Asia’s flagship national team competition for the first time.”
Frank Lowy, chairman of Football Federation Australia, said Australia was determined to deliver the best Asian Cup yet.
“This will be the largest football competition ever staged in our country,” Lowy told the official draw ceremony.
“It will be a feast of international football, and we’re confident that Australians will get behind all the 16 teams, as we have shown for other major events.”
Sydney will host the final, expected to be played on January 31, and also the two semi-finals.
Melbourne will host the Asian Cup’s opening match, on the weekend of January 8. It has missed out on the games at the business end of the tournament, partly to avoid clashing with the Australian Open tennis grand slam event.
Matches will also be played in Canberra, Brisbane and possibly the Gold Coast.
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.