Kuala Lumpur: The Asian Qualifiers are back, with five national teams to resume their campaigns in the coming week for the first time since November 2019.
The roads to FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023 are open once again but, in the ever-changing world of international football, how clearly will we recognise the teams we haven't seen in competitive action for well over a year?
Join the-AFC.com as we check in with the Mongolian side who stunned the rest of the continent with a dream start to the Asian Qualifiers in 2019, but now face the daunting challenge of successive away fixtures against Tajikistan and Japan after over 400 days without a match.
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The Asian Qualifiers story so far
Ranked 187th in the world at the outset of the competition Mongolia were considered outsiders, but their start resembled a fairy tale. They were the first team anywhere in the world to score a goal in Qatar 2022 qualifying, and their 3-2 aggregate win over Brunei Darussalam way back in June 2019 was enough to take them through to the first group stage of AFC qualifying for the first time in two decades.
The fun didn’t end there. They shocked many with a 1-0 win against Myanmar on Matchday One of the current stage, but that result proved to be the high point of their campaign, with losses following against all four of their Group F opponents, including a 6-0 defeat against Japan.
With the exception of that heavy loss in Saitama, Mongolia have remained competitive, losing by the odd goal at home to Tajikistan and Kyrgyz Republic, as well as in their second clash with Myanmar.
Where do they sit in their group?
Last and on the brink of elimination, at least in the race for Qatar 2022. Even a draw against Tajikistan will formally end Mongolia’s hopes of winning the group they once led, but, as a developing football nation, their odyssey will continue beyond the current block of fixtures.
What is still within Mongolia’s reach is the opportunity to finish fourth, an achievement which would not only illustrate tremendous progress, but may be enough to take them straight through to the third round of qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup China 2023.
How ready are they to resume competitive international football?
Mongolia’s national team haven’t played a single ‘A’ international since their 1-0 defeat to Myanmar in November 2019, and Thursday’s clash will end a 460-day hiatus, putting them at a significant disadvantage to opponents Tajikistan, who have played senior internationals since last September.
But the Blue Wolves won’t arrive in Dushanbe totally unprepared. They have spent the best part of a month in a training camp in Turkey; a detour which allowed them to gain valuable match practice against lower league club sides from Russia and Ukraine, including an encouraging goalless draw against FC Tyumen on Saturday.
Nearly all of the players selected for this trip managed a reasonable amount of club football in the 2020 Mongolian National Premier League campaign, with an 18-match competition held from July to September last year.
What has changed since their last match in November 2019?
There have been significant changes both on and off the pitch. The three-year tenure of Michael Weiß – the coach who guided them through their earlier Qualifiers – came to an end last January, and his interim replacement Vojislav Bralušić departed six months later without having the opportunity to lead his team in a match.
The responsibility now falls to Rastislav Božik, a 43-year-old from Slovakia who has held a number technical roles with clubs and national teams from both sides of Asia, but is set to take charge of a senior national team for the first time.
This week’s matches may also mark the beginning of a generational shift for Mongolia. Captain Tsedenbal Norjmoo - the scorer of three of the team’s five goals in the this campaign – retains his place, but the 32-year-old is the only player born in the 1980s included in the travelling party, with veterans like Bilgüün Ganbold, Ganbaataryn Tögsbayar and Bayasgalan Garidmagnai not involved this time around.
Among the younger faces in Božik’s squad are 20-year-old Deren pair Bayasgalan Garidmagnai and Khash-Erdene Tuya as well as Ganbayar Ganbold, also 20, who became the first Mongolian to sign a professional contract in Europe when he joined Hungarian outfit Puskás Akadémia as a teenager in 2018.
Despite the influx of youth, the responsibility in the final third is likely to fall on the shoulders of the more experienced Naranbold Nyam-Osor. The Athletic 220 FC striker scored 29 goals in a 2020 league campaign which comprised just 18 games.
Are there any worries?
Mongolia are bottom of the group, haven’t played an official international match for 16 months and have gone almost five years since their last competitive win outside Ulaanbaatar.
Throw in the challenge of back-to-back away fixtures held 6,000 kilometres apart against more experienced and better-prepared opponents, and Mongolia’s task looks exceptionally difficult, but they will certainly be eager to return to the international stage, and may well feel they have nothing to lose in the week ahead.
With Božik at the helm and some fresh young faces among the playing staff, Mongolia will be eager to build on the breakthroughs of late 2019, and perhaps even climb off the bottom of the group table.
Their progress before the pandemic was encouraging, now it’s time to see what the future holds.
TAJIKISTAN v MONGOLIA
Central Republican Stadium, Dushanbe
Kick-off - 18:00 (UTC+5), March 25
MONGOLIA v JAPAN
Fukuda Denshi Arena, Chiba, Japan
Kick-off - 19:30 (UTC+9), March 30
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