Kuala Lumpur: A Central Asian derby pits Tajikistan against neighbours Kyrgyz Republic, while Mongolia look to make further history when they host Myanmar as Group F of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023 Asian Qualifiers begin on Thursday.
Tajikistan and Mongolia will be aiming to make the best of their respective opening ties at home and seal an early advantage on their road to Qatar 2022 and China 2023.
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TAJIKISTAN vs KYRGYZ REPUBLIC
Three and a half years after Tajikistan’s last World Cup Qualifier, they begin their bid to reach Qatar 2022 against the same opposition and at the same venue, although they will certainly be hoping for a different result.
A solitary strike from Vitalij Lux gave Alexander Krestinin’s Kyrgyz Republic a 1-0 win in March 2016, bringing to an end a miserable group stage for Tajikistan, who ended with just one point – earned against Kyrgyz Republic in Bishkek – to show for in their eight match-campaign.
But much can change in three years. Buoyed by an exciting new generation of talented youngsters, many of whom play their club football for an FC Istiklol side which dominates the nation’s domestic scene, Tajikistan have showed positive signs under new coach Usmon Toshev (pictured below), most notably in impressive wins over India and Syria in July’s Intercontinental Cup.
While the tide may slowly be turning for Tajikistan, their Central Asian neighbours have tasted unprecedented highs since their last visit to Dushanbe, by qualifying for their first AFC Asian Cup, then reaching the Round of 16 before a valiant extra-time elimination at the hands of host nation United Arab Emirates.
Having led the Akshumkar to those lofty heights, Krestinin remains at the helm, and the Russian mentor is certainly a man who knows the capabilities of his squad, with a sizeable contingent from his club side, reigning Kyrgyz Premier League champions FC Dordoi.
Kyrgyz Republic have played only once since UAE 2019 – a 2-2 friendly draw with Palestine in June – but talented new faces have emerged nonetheless, with Dordoi’s Ernist Batyrkanov, 21, starring for Dordoi and Abai Bokoleev of FC Ilbirs, 23, both impressing on the domestic front.
While the future looks bright, the responsibility in Dushanbe is likely to fall on the shoulders of Kyrgyz Republic’s trusted senior players, although the absence of star defender Valery Kichin is an undoubted blow ahead Group F’s Central Asian derby
Regional bragging rights may be on the line in Dushanbe, but with many observers expecting Japan to lead the way in the group, the result will also go a long way in determining which team can challenge the World Cup regulars.
TAJIKISTAN vs KYRGYZ REPUBLIC
Venue: Republican Central Stadium, Dushanbe
Kick-off: 1900 hours (UTC +5)
MONGOLIA vs MYANMAR
Thursday’s other Group F fixture brings together a Mongolian outfit riding high after a drought-breaking opening round victory, and a Myanmar national team in their first competitive hit out under Montenegrin coach Miodrag Radulovic.
Sitting at 187th in the FIFA rankings, Mongolia – under German boss Hans Weiss (pictured below) - are one of the lowest-rated sides remaining at this stage of the competition, but they arrive with the momentum provided by a terrific 3-2 aggregate win over Brunei Darussalam in June.
While whoever scores the final goal at the 2022 World Cup will have their names permanently etched into world football history, Norjmoogiin Tsedenbal’s superb free-kick against Brunei – the first goal by anyone on the road to Qatar – was potentially one of equal significance for the game in Mongolia.
Tsedenbal’s goal was what kick-started the national team’s first win in a major Continental Qualifier since June 2011; one which happened to come against Myanmar, before the Southeast Asians overturned a 1-0 defeat with a 2-0 win five days later.
With that opening hurdle successfully cleared, Mongolia now have the chance to push for greater honours, including a shot at a first ever AFC Asian Cup Finals, but they are likely to need a strong start against Thursday’s visitors if that is to become a genuine possibility.
While a 4-1 defeat to China PR on Saturday – with all four goals conceded in the opening half-hour – served as a reminder of the progress still to be made for Myanmar, the appointment of former Lebanon head coach Radulovic and a 2-1 away win in Singapore in June are among the recent positives.
Two goals against Singapore have Thailand-based forward Kyaw Ko Ko just three away from equalling Soe Myat Min’s national team scoring record, while the likes of Aung Thu and Maung Maung Lwin, graduates of the side that successfully reached the 2015 FIFA U-20 World Cup Finals, are coming into their peak years.
Radulovic’s men will be confident of collecting points in Ulaanbaatar, and with Japan visiting Yangon’s Thuwunna Stadium next Tuesday, it may be a match they cannot afford to lose if they are to remain competitive in Group F.
MONGOLIA vs MYANMAR
Venue: MFF Stadium, Ulaanbaataar
Kick-off: 1700 hours (UTC +8)
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