Kuala Lumpur: As coaches announce their national team squads ahead of the Asian Qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023, the eight AFC Champions League quarter-finalists are sending 45 players on the first steps along the road to Qatar 2022 and China 2023.
With the first leg of the 2019 AFC Champions League quarter-finals already concluded and the international break descending to bring respite to club football, eyes of Asian football fans turn to the intriguing opening rounds of the Asian Qualifiers to be played on Thursday and Tuesday.
Fans of the AFC Champions League quarter-finalists will have one eye on their respective club players looking to star at national team level. A total of 45 players will be representing six of the eight sides, with none coming from the two J.League clubs, Kashima Antlers and Urawa Red Diamonds.
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Al Hilal's talented midfield was the vein most mined by new coach Herve Renard, who took the Saudi Arabia helm at the end of July after leaving his role with Morrocco following African Cup of Nations disappointment. Four Hilalis were selected for action in the middle of the pitch including veterans Salman Al Faraj, Salem Al Dawsari, Mohamed Kanno and exciting winger Hattan Bahebri.
Goalkeeper Abdullah Al Mayoof is among the custodians picked by the Frenchman while centre-back Ali Al Buhlaihi and flying full-back Yasser Al Shahrani, who could make his 50th international appearance for the Green Falcons, are also called up for the matches against Mali (friendly) and Yemen respectively.
As with their Riyadh rivals and 2019 AFC Champions League quarter-final opponents, Al Ittihad have a strong representation in the Saudi Arabia squad with seven of the Jeddah side's players called up for the Green Falcons.
There is a strong defensive contingent as goalkeeper Fawaz Al Qarni and the defensive trio of Hamdan Al Shamrani, Ziyad Al Sahafi and Saud Abdulhamid, who could gain his first cap, all selected. Elsewhere, midfielders Abdulaziz Al Bishi and Khaled Al Sumairi along with forward Haroune Camara are all involved.
A mix of experienced veterans and exciting youthful talents is the theme of the men selected from the Saudi Pro League champions. A rock at the back, Omar Hawsawi is a lynchpin of the defence for both club and country, while right-back Sultan Al Ghanam and centre-back Abdullah Madu are seasoned campaigners.
But it is the young stars such as flying full-back Abdurahman Al Dossari (21) who was on the scoresheet in their 2019 AFC Champions League quarter-final first leg against Al Sadd, defensive midfielder Abdullah Al Khaibari (23) and forward Firas Al Buraikan (19) that could be the real ones to watch.
Given that the vast majority of Qatar's AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 final line-up consisted of Al Sadd players, it's no surprise that most of the Doha club's stars have been called up by head coach Felix Sanchez for the matches against Afghanistan and India, with the 2018 AFC Player of the Year Adbelkarim Hassan and the irrepressible Akram Afif among them.
Elsewhere, goalkeepers Saad Al Sheeb and Meshaal Barsham, defenders Pedro Miguel, Salem Al Hajri and Tarek Salman, midfielders Boualem Khoukhi, Hassan Al Haydos and Hashim Ali, as well as forward Abdulaziz Al Ansari are all called up. Midfielder Jung Woo-young, meanwhile, jets off to represent Korea Republic in their friendly with Georgia and opening qualifier against Turkmenistan.
As ever, Chinese Super League heavyweights Guangzhou Evergrande provide much of the spine of the China PR national team. Coach Marcello Lippi often draws on his former club for familiar faces with Zhang Linpeng, the ageless Zheng Zhi and Huang Bowen veterans of Team China, while defender Gao Zhunyi, midfielder Xu Xin and forward Yang Liyu are an injection of youth.
Striker Wei Shihao has enjoyed a successful campaign on the Continent and will be looking to transfer that form to the national side, while there is plenty of much-reported intrigue about newly naturalised forward Elkeson, who earns his first call-up. Defender Park Ji-soo has also been named in the Korea Republic squad to face Georgia and Turkmenistan.
The 2018 Chinese Super League champions Shanghai SIPG are less represented in the national team squad than their rivals, but goalkeeper Yan Junling will be hoping to get the nod in goal. Integral in Vitor Pereira's defensive unit, both left-back Shi Ke and centre-back He Guan have also been called up by Italian Lippi.
Uzbekistan captain Odil Ahmedov will reach a significant milestone if he turns out against Palestine in the West Bank on Thursday, with the midfielder in line to earn his 100th cap for the White Wolves.
Despite flying high in the J.League and continuing their defence of their AFC Champions League title into the 2019 quarter-finals, no Kashima Antlers players will feature in the opening qualifiers for the Samurai Blue. Their most recent call-up was forward Ayase Ueda who was selected in the squad for the 2019 Copa America.
Urawa Red Diamonds
Like Kashima, the two-time Asian champions do not have any representatives in Japan's squad, with defenders Tomoaki Makino and Ryosuke Yamanaka last making the squad on June 9 against El Salvador.
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