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Asian Qualifiers - Preview: Group H

Seoul: After more than a year and a half away, Group H of the Asian Qualifiers is set to resume on June 5 as the four teams take to the centralised venue of Goyang. 

Star-studded hosts Korea Republic will undoubtedly begin as favourites, although Lebanon held the Taeguk Warriors earlier in the campaign while an ever-improving Turkmenistan already have points on the board, too. Sri Lanka, meanwhile, are still aiming to get off the mark.

With plenty to play for over what promises to be an action-packed two weeks, shines the spotlight on the story so far, the teams and players involved, and much more.

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The Venue

The former home of the defunct Korea Republic second division side Goyang Zaicro, the multi-purpose Goyang Stadium has largely been used for national team purposes since 2016.

The last senior men's international action in the stadium was in 2018 when the Taeguk Warriors came away 2-0 victors in a friendly against Costa Rica. More recently, the venue played host to a pair of friendly matches between Korea Republic’s senior national team and the U23 Olympic side in October last year.

Located just west of the capital Seoul, the 41,000-capacity stadium is set to host all five of the remaining Group H matches in early June.

The Group in Context

With DPR Korea officially withdrawing from qualification, Korea Republic are the only remaining side in Group H to have played in the FIFA World Cup. That should not, however, indicate that the group is a foregone conclusion.

The Taeguk Warriors began their campaign with a 2-0 victory in Turkmenistan after Na Sang-ho and Jung Woo-young scored the goals to get them off to a perfect start. They then stormed past Sri Lanka with Kim Shin-wook scoring four times and Son Heung-min bagging a brace as they moved to the top of the standings.

A goalless draw with recently withdrawn DPR Korea came next before Paulo Bento's team then played out another 0-0 stalemate away in Lebanon as they remained unbeaten but, perhaps, short of the points tally they would have hoped for.

Looking to secure their safe passage to the next round of qualifying, the hosts boast the likes of international superstar Son, RB Leipzig’s Hwang Hee-chan and 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup MVP Lee Kang-in, who beat Erling Haaland to the award.

Having qualified for nine straight FIFA World Cups dating back to 1986, fans of the Taeguk Warriors would accept nothing less than a place in the next round. They will look to hit the ground running when they resume proceedings against Turkmenistan on June 5.

Marginally behind Korea Republic and sharing a group with the hosts for the third straight Asian Qualifiers are Lebanon, who are hoping to return to the third round of qualifying after also making it through in the 2014 campaign.

With the 2019 AFC Cup champion and MVP Mehdi Khalil in goal, behind Nour Mansour and Alexander Melki in defence, the Cedars have looked solid at the back so far, with a 0-0 draw against Korea Republic their standout performance.

The West Asians have also secured wins over Sri Lanka and, potentially crucially, Turkmenistan, when Hilal El Helwe and Nader Matar were on the scoresheet in a 2-1 victory at Beirut's Camille Chamoun Sports City Stadium.

Led by captain Hassan Maatouk, Lebanon will resume Group H against bottom side Sri Lanka on June 5 before a clash with Turkmenistan that could potentially secure at least a second-place finish ahead of a final-day showdown with Korea Republic on June 13.

Turkmenistan could not have been handed a more difficult start in Goyang, where they will open against the hosts, although a pair of wins over Sri Lanka earlier in the campaign does ensure they have travelled to East Asia with hopes of a top-two finish still alive.

The Central Asians will look to the likes of captain Arslanmyrat Amanov, former Slavia Prague midfielder Ruslan Mingazov and Altymyrat Annadurdyyev to inspire them to an upset before they close their campaign against the Lebanese on June 9.

Already eliminated, but still with two games to play, Sri Lanka will look to pick up their first points in Group H . Having played Turkmenistan twice in 2019, they will face both Lebanon and Korea Republic in Goyang.

Key Men

Son Heung-min – Korea Republic

Undoubtedly the star man of Korean football, captain Son Heung-min will look to lead Korea Republic into the next round yet again, and he heads to Goyang on the back of another excellent campaign in the English Premier League.

Forming a lethal partnership with Harry Kane at Tottenham Hotspur, Son finished as the league's joint fourth-highest scorer and weighed in with a host of assists, and he will aim to link up similarly well with the likes of Hwang Hee-chang for the national team.

Altymyrat Annadurdyyev – Turkmenistan

Keen followers of the AFC Cup will be only too aware of Altymyrat Annadurdyyev's qualities, with the Altyn Asyr forward having been his side's standout performer since 2017, most notably when he inspired them to the final in 2018.

Annadurdyyev is excellent from distance and an important creator of chances, and he will be keen to add to his two goals so far in Group H. Up against a Korea Republic backline that has yet to concede and when Turkmenistan resume, the task couldn't be much tougher.

Mehdi Khalil – Lebanon

A superb shot-stopper and commanding in the air, Mehdi Khalil has been Lebanon's Number 1 since 2015, and was the Cedars' last line of defence when they reached the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 knockout rounds.

Known among Lebanese football fans as 'The Mountain', Khalil also enjoyed a standout club season in 2019 when he kept nine clean sheets in 11 games in Al Ahed FC's AFC Cup title-winning campaign before being named the tournament's MVP.

Kavindu Ishan – Sri Lanka

Captain Kavindu Ishan has represented Sri Lanka for almost a decade, and has appeared for his nation in competitions including the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup and the 2016 AFC Solidarity Cup, during which he scored his only international goal in a draw with Macau.

At club level, the 28-year-old midfielder has played his entire career in his homeland, and has appeared in the AFC President's Cup in 2011 and 2014.

Earlier in the Asian Qualifiers, he led his team out alongside Son Heung-min when Sri Lanka met Korea Republic in Hwaesong, and he will look to do likewise when the sides face off in Goyang.

Note: DPR Korea's results have been declared null and void.

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