Kuala Lumpur: More than 18 months since the majority of countries last took part in competitive action, the Asian Qualifiers are set to return on May 28 at eight centralised venues across the continent.
With the action coming thick and fast over a two-week period during which teams will look to secure a place in the next round of qualifying, the-AFC.com shines the spotlight on some of the form players who will be representing their nations.
See also :
Asian Qualifiers - Preview: Group A
Asian Qualifiers - Preview: Group B
Asian Qualifiers - Preview: Group C
Mehdi Taremi (IR Iran)
Since leaving Qatar's Al Gharafa in 2019, Mehdi Taremi has shone in Portugal, with his form at Rio Ave in his first season earning a move to European heavyweights FC Porto. The former Persepolis FC striker has handled the step up with few problems, finishing as his side's top scorer and third in the league's scoring charts.
In his last 10 games, Taremi has found the back of the net eight times, including a stunning overhead kick in the UEFA Champions League quarter-final against Chelsea which ultimately proved insufficient for his side to advance. However, his goals domestically have ensured Porto have booked their ticket to next year's edition.
Alongside another in-form striker in Sardar Azmoun, Taremi makes up one half of a frightening Iranian frontline that will look to score the goals to help the Islamic Republic of Iran catch Group C leaders Iraq. Should the Bushehr native pick up in Bahrain where he left off in Portugal, Team Melli will fancy their chances of doing just that.
Junya Ito (Japan)
Having moved to Belgium from his native Japan in 2018, Junya Ito has found his best form in the 2020-21 season as his goals and assists have helped Genk secure European football for the 2021-22 campaign.
Ito netted the first goal in the Belgian Cup final in April to help his team defeat Standard Liege 2-1, before Ito and his side excelled in the Belgian First Division play-offs to ensure they will enter the UEFA Champions League qualifying rounds this summer.
With four goals in his last 10 games – including two against Mongolia when he last donned the national team jersey – and a host of assists that helped him finish joint third in the goal creators' charts, Ito is on fire heading into the resumption of the Asian Qualifiers.
Omar Al Soma (Syria)
By his own lofty standards, this season Omar Al Soma has failed to hit the heights that he has tended to throughout a goal-laden career as Al Ahli Saudi FC look set to finish unusually low in mid-table. However, his recent displays suggests he is returning to the kind of form that is expected of him.
In his past ten games, Al Soma has scored seven times, and he was again the Jeddah side's main man in the AFC Champions League. While Al Ahli Saudi were eliminated from the continental competition, the 32-year-old contributed an impressive four goals in five games.
Syria currently lead the way in Group A, eight points clear of China PR and the Philippines, and Al Soma is the Asian Qualifiers' seven-goal leading scorer. The Qasioun Eagles are already within touching distance of the next phase, and they will be looking for the striker to seal the deal when they take to the field in Suzhou.
Eldor Shomurodov (Uzbekistan)
Having moved from Russian club Rostov to Genoa in Serie A, Eldor Shomurodov is now coming into his own in Italy, and the forward's recent spate of goals ensures he heads into the Asian Qualifiers on red-hot form.
The 25-year-old netted just four times in his first 28 appearances for his new side as he took time to adapt to his new surroundings, but has rounded off the campaign with five goals in his last six matches.
Shomurodov recently bagged a brace against third-placed Atalanta before closing out the campaign with a match-winning strike against Cagliari. That made it eight goals for the season, and his popularity among the club's fanbase continues to grow.
Jamie Maclaren (Australia)
Melbourne City produced a stunning A-League campaign as the Victoria side were crowned Premiers for the first time, and at the heart of it all was Jamie Maclaren, who looks set to finish the regular season as top scorer by some distance.
At the time of writing, the prolific 29-year-old had netted 25 goals in just 24 appearances to fire his side to the title with three games to spare, with the highlight surely an incredible five-goal haul against city rivals Melbourne Victory in mid-April.
Maclaren netted four goals in his last two appearances for his country in wins over Nepal and Chinese Taipei back in October 2019, and he will be confident of adding to that tally when the Socceroos take to the field in Kuwait.
Ali Mabkhout (United Arab Emirates)
Few strikers in top-flight Asian football can match Maclaren's goal ratio this season, but Ali Mabkhout rivals the Melbourne City man as the 30-year-old scored 25 times in 26 appearances to fire Al Jazira to the UAE Pro League title.
In Mabkhout's last 10 games for club and country he has scored a whopping 14 goals which have included three hat-tricks, two of which came in friendly wins for the the UAE over India and Jordan.
Indeed, so good is Mabkhout's record at international level that there are just three players currently active in the men's game that have scored more than him: Lionel Messi, Sunil Chhetri (both of whom are within striking distance) and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Lee Ki-je (Korea Republic)
At 29 years old, Lee Ki-je's recent displays have seen the left-back called into the Korea Republic squad for the first time as his form has helped Suwon Samsung Bluewings rise to second place on the K League 1 standings.
In the past month alone he has netted in a 3-1 win over perennial champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors as well as two match-winning strikes, including an excellent free-kick against Gwangju. With K League 1 only just reaching its midway point, Lee has already recorded his best goal tally in a top-flight season.
In addition to his defensive and goal-scoring attributes, Lee is also a key creator of chances and a fine crosser – he has chalked up three assists in the current campaign as his all-round game has caught the eye of the Taeguk Warriors' head coach Paulo Bento.
Salem Al Dawsari (Saudi Arabia)
At the age of 29, Salem Al Dawsari has firmly established himself as the nation’s undisputed star. The winger has spent his entire career at Al Hilal, bar a short loan spell at Spanish side Villarreal in 2017-18, collecting a raft of domestic trophies and winning the 2019 AFC Champions League title with his boyhood club.
Since making his debut against Australia in 2012, Al Dawsari has racked up 50 caps, scoring 12 goals for his country, including the winner in their most recent FIFA World Cup victory, a 2-1 win over Egypt in Russia 2018.
Despite being a winger, Al Dawsari is his nation’s top scorer in the current Qualifiers campaign with three goals. His first came in the opening day 2-2 draw against Palestine. He added the winning goal in the 3-2 victory over Uzbekistan and was on the scoresheet against Palestine again in the reverse fixture in March.
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