Suzhou: More than 18 months since the last ball was kicked in Group A of the Asian Qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023, the competition will resume on May 30 as the five sides get set to continue their campaigns in the Chinese city of Suzhou.
Syria currently lead the way with a hugely impressive five wins from five and they start as clear favourites to progress to the third round of qualifying, while the pressure is on hosts China PR who sit eight points back, level with the Philippines.
The Maldives still have aspirations of a top-two finish and Guam are seeking their first points of the campaign. Ahead of the opening game between China and Guam on Sunday, the-AFC.com takes a closer look at Group A.
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Located in the Chinese province of Jiangsu, Suzhou Olympic Sports Centre will play host to all eight games in Group A. Having only officially opened in January 2019, the multi-purpose, 40,933-capacity venue has already played a significant role in Chinese football.
After the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the start of the 2020 Chinese Super League, Suzhou was chosen as one of the host cities when the competition moved to a centralised format, with Suzhou Olympic Sports Centre the setting for numerous games, including both legs of the final between Jiangsu FC and Guangzhou Evergrande.
The stadium also hosted the second leg of the China women's team's Olympic qualifying playoff against Korea Republic in April, when a 2-2 draw saw the Steel Roses advance to the Games in Japan.
Part of a sports hub that also includes an aquatics centre, a gymnasium and an arena, the state-of-the-art stadium's architectural design was inspired by the traditional Chinese lantern, and hopes will be high that the national team's performances can light up the venue.
The Group in Context
Syria are the runaway leaders in Group A and should they defeat the Maldives and Guam they will have already confirmed top spot ahead of their final-day showdown against China on June 15. With only the top team assured of a place in the third round of qualifying, there is plenty riding on the matches against the island nations.
The Qasioun Eagles got off to a perfect start to their campaign back in September 2019 when Omar Al Soma was twice on the scoresheet in a resounding 5-2 away victory over the Philippines that saw them set the early pace in the group.
The prolific Al Soma then netted five times in two games as the West Asians saw off the Maldives 2-1 and Guam 4-0, but it was the 2-1 win over China in Dubai in November 2019 that put them firmly in control of the group.
After Wu Lei's leveller had cancelled out Osama Omari's opener, it was an own goal from Zhang Linpeng that saw Syria claim all three points. The ensuing 1-0 win over Philippines, thanks to Ward Al Salama's goal, made it a perfect five wins from five.
The pressure is undoubtedly on China, whose campaign started positively with 5-0 and 7-0 wins over the Maldives and Guam but then went downhill after a goalless draw with the Philippines and the loss to Syria.
Head coach Li Tie will hope the likes of Wu Lei and Ai Kesen, who have each scored three goals so far, will be on song in Suzhou when they resume their campaign against Guam on May 30 before taking on the Maldives three days later.
But, should Syria claim top spot, then China's clash with the Philippines on June 9 will likely be key as both sides will be targeting second place and with it, potentially, a place in the third round of qualifying as one of the best-placed runners-up.
Level on points with China but having played a game more, meanwhile, the Philippines could well need to take maximum points from their three games to finish in second place. The match with the hosts is sandwiched between clashes with Guam and the Maldives.
Having picked up their six points from two wins over Guam, the Maldives are within touching distance of China and the Philippines. Their opener against the Chinese on June 3 will serve as an indicator of their second-placed chances.
Guam, meanwhile, have already been eliminated after five defeats on the bounce, and are now playing for pride. Ahead of their game with China on May 30, however, the hosts may be wise to note Guam have form when it comes to overcoming an opponent with more than 700 times its population – as India can attest to.
Omar Al Soma – Syria
The leading goalscorer in the Asian Qualifiers so far, Syrian striker Omar Al Soma has been one of the most prolific frontman on the continent for over a decade for both club and country and shows no signs of letting up at 32 years old.
A physical presence at 194 centimetres, Al Soma is the complete package as an attacker with his strength in the air, set-piece ability and flair for the acrobatic. Few would bet against him adding to his tally in Suzhou.
Wu Lei – China PR
Much like Wang Shuang is the number 7-wearing hero of the China PR Women’s National Team, Wu Lei is the men’s equivalent and will be hoping to power his country to similar success after Wang Shuang’s recent heroics in Olympic Games qualifying.
The forward did not enjoy the best campaign individually for RCD Espanyol, but his side did achieve promotion to La Liga, and with his pace, technical ability and finishing skills he remains his national team’s catalyst
Neil Etheridge – Philippines
With the retirement of Phil and James Younghusband, goalkeeper Neil Etheridge is undoubtedly the most high-profile player in the Philippines national team with the custodian continuing to enjoy a successful professional career in the United Kingdom.
The 31-year-old shot-stopper, who plied his youth career at Chelsea and Fulham, was a standout for Cardiff City in the 2018-19 English Premier League campaign and most recently helped Birmingham City retain their place in England’s EFL Championship this season.
Ali Ashfaq – Maldives
Ali Ashfaq is, without hyperbole, a living legend of Maldivian football. His country’s top international goalscorer by some distance, Ashfaq had set numerous records for a Maldivian footballer both at home and abroad, enjoying a goal-filled spell at PDRM FA in Malaysia.
Now 35 years old, Ashfaq may be entering the final stages of a wonderful career in the game, but still has lost none of his penalty-box instincts with the “Man of Steel” currently Maldives’ leading scoring in the Asian Qualifiers.
Jason Cunliffe – Guam
Like Ashfaq, Jason Cunliffe is captain, veteran and icon of his national side, with the 37-year-old midfielder both the highest international goalscorer and most capped player for the Guam National Team.
Skipper since 2012, the Hagatna-native is unquestionably the heartbeat of the Matao, having been present at some of the teams’ biggest moments. With an eye for goal and looking to add to his national record tally, Cunliffe is sure to lead by example once again in Suzhou at the Asian Qualifiers.
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