Kuala Lumpur: With four Matchdays and several memorable games completed, there will be little room for error when Asia’s national teams convene for Matchdays Five and Six of the Asian Qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023 in the coming week.
With high stakes fixtures on the agenda all over the Continent, the-AFC.com scrutinises some of the key facts and figures ahead of the 32-match extravaganza to come.
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Hrustic’s instant impact
Almost lost in Australia’s handsome 7-1 win over Chinese Taipei last month was the stunning impact of substitute Ajdin Hrustic, whose cameo made him the most prolific provider of assists per 90 minutes played in the first four Asian Qualifiers Matchdays.
Appearing for just the third time in the senior national team, the 23-year-old provided three assists – two from set-pieces, the other from open play – in just 26 minutes of game time in Kaohsiung.
His competition total of three assists in 49 minutes - including his 23-minute cameo against Nepal - makes for a whopping 5.51 per 90 minutes of on-field action, with the FC Groningen midfielder keeping his place in the squad ahead of Thursday’s match against Jordan in Amman.
Wang Gang is China PR’s key pass king
Wang Gang, 30, may have only made his official international debut in March, but the Beijing Guoan man has certainly made his mark on China’s right hand side.
He leads Marcello Lippi’s team, and all of Asia, for key passes, having recorded no less than 10 in three matches – four more than any other player in the Asian Qualifiers.
Wang has sent in an average of nine crosses per match and added two assists in last month’s win against Guam to play a key role in China’s unbeaten start to the campaign.
Lebanon and DPR Korea in familiar company
September’s Asian Qualifiers meeting between DPR Korea and Lebanon may have been the first ever FIFA World Cup Qualifier to feature the two nations, but the players on each side could be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu when the sides cross paths in Beirut next Tuesday.
The match will be the fifth competitive meeting between the sides in just over two years, with the pair having been drawn in the same group on the last three possible occasions, including 2019 AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers and Finals, as well as the current Asian Qualifiers campaign.
Adding to the sense of familiarity, Lebanon’s Al Ahed FC defeated DPR Korea’s 4.25 SC in the AFC Cup Final just over a week ago, with both clubs supplying multiple players for their respective national teams.
The Lebanese outfit were successful on that occasion, while the likes of Al Ahed goalkeeper Mehdi Khalil may have felt a sense of revenge, the rest of Liviu Ciobotariu’s national team will be eager to reverse the 2-0 defeat they suffered in Pyongyang two months ago.
Malaysia with score to settle against Thailand
Lebanon are one of several teams hoping to overturn previous results in the coming international window, but Malaysia will have more reason than most to right the wrongs of the past when they meet neighbouring Thailand on Thursday.
Harimau Malaya have beaten the War Elephants just once over 90 minutes in the last 13 years, and - to make matters worse - the solitary win in that 11-match run was far from celebrated, as it came in the form of a 3-2 second leg victory in the 4-2 aggregate defeat which cost Malaysia the 2014 AFF Championship.
While Malaysia haven’t had much joy against Thailand in the past decade, they do have the recent happy memory of eliminating their neighbours from the 2019 AFF Championship semi-finals on away goals after a 2-2 aggregate draw.
Hosseini’s mirror matches
One of the most reliable passers of the football thus far in the qualification race has been Islamic Republic of Iran’s Majid Hosseini, whose two appearances so far produced a remarkable instance of history repeating itself.
The Trabzonspor defender played full matches against both Hong Kong and Bahrain, racking up precisely the same record of 52 passes, and 50 accurate passes, on each occasion.
Those numbers give Hosseini an overall passing accuracy of 96.15 per cent, a number bettered only by Korea Republic’s Kwon Kyung-won (98.04).
Uzbekistan happy at home
There is currently plenty to like about an Uzbekistan side whose results have seen an immediate improvement under returning head coach Vadim Abramov.
The White Falcons have won all three matches since Abramov replaced Hector Cuper and currently lead Group D despite losing in Palestine in September, but perhaps the most encouraging stat for Uzbekistan fans ahead of Thursday’s blockbuster clash with Saudi Arabia is the extent to which away teams have struggled in the fixture.
Neither side has won away in the other’s country, with Saudi Arabia’s 1-1 draw in Tashkent in 2005 the closest either has come to achieving the feat.
Al Soma stands tall
Several of Asia’s star strikers have shown their quality in the qualification race, but none have been as productive, or as consistent, as Syrian front man Omar Al Soma.
The prolific marksman has scored seven in three matches for Syria, with braces against the Philippines and Maldives followed up by a hat-trick against Guam, taking his tally to 15 in the last 26 months.
Fans of the Qasioun Eagles will be hoping for similar showing when Al Soma faces China in Dubai on Thursday, where a Syrian win will put them five points clear at the top of Group A.
Japan in uncharted territory
Hajime Moriyasu’s Japan have had little to worry about so far in Group F, scoring 11 unanswered goals to win all three of their matches, but the four-time Asian champions’ next assignment will take the well-travelled Samurai Blue somewhere they’ve never been.
Japan have never played a match of any description in Kyrgyz Republic, where they will face the Akshumkar on Thursday, with Moriyasu admitting he expects the unfamiliar surroundings to add an element of difficulty for his side.
The sides have only met once before, when Japan won a pre-AFC Asian Cup friendly 4-0 in Toyota last November.
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