Kuala Lumpur: After a long delay, Asian national teams are finally resuming their Asian Qualifiers campaigns, with five sides to pick up from where they left off back in November 2019 in the coming international window.
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 take a look at each of the five returning sides, including their key changes and what to expect ahead of the Asian Qualifiers matches in the coming week.
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The first cab off the rank is Tajikistan, a side aiming for a top two finish in Group F, with a legion of talented youngsters who may yet play an important role.
The Asian Qualifiers story so far
A 1-0 win over regional rivals Kyrgyz Republic got their campaign off to a perfect start in a jam-packed Central Republic Stadium in September 2019, and they led the group after they backed it up with a single-goal win away to Mongolia five days later, but those lofty heights proved unsustainable.
Japan’s visit to Dushanbe ended in a 3-0 defeat for the hosts, and a 4-3 away defeat to Myanmar did severe damage to their hopes before they shared the spoils in a 1-1 draw with Kyrgyz Republic in Bishkek in their last competitive hit out in November 2019.
Where do they sit in their group?
Third, and while topping Group F remains a mathematical possibility for Tajikistan, their tally of seven points from five matches, coupled with the flawless record of leaders Japan, means taking second place ahead of neighbours Kyrgyz Republic appears a much more realistic goal.
With only four of the eight group runners-up to advance to the final stage of FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 qualifying, third-placed Tajikistan have almost no margin for error, and a home fixture against the last-placed team in the group is one that they simply must win.
Should they fall short in an unlikely bid to reach the Third Round of Asian qualifying for Qatar 2022, Tajikistan will remain well in the hunt for a place at the AFC Asian Cup China 2023, a stage the nation has never reached since attaining independence in the early 1990s.
How ready are they to resume competitive international football?
They should be as ready as anyone. Tajikistan’s domestic scene remained active while many others ground to a halt in the early months of the pandemic, and the national team has played five ‘A’ internationals since last September.
The 2021 league season is yet to commence in Tajikistan, but the country’s top flight clubs have been active in various pre-season competitions, while more than a quarter of the available players have enjoyed regular first-team football in overseas leagues.
What has changed since their last match in November 2019?
Domestic champions Istiklol remain the country’s dominant force and providers of much of the national team’s talent, including the influential Manuchehr and Alisher Dzhalilov, but a lack of competitive international action in 2020 has given Tajikistan’s exceptionally promising crop of youngsters an extra year to grow.
A number of those prospects have been included in Usmon Toshev’s squad.
Eighteen-year-old Rustam Soirov’s 12 goals for Istiklol in 2020 have seen him called up alongside goalkeeper Mukhriddin Khasanov - Soirov’s teammate when Tajikistan reached the final of the AFC U-16 Championship in 2016 – but the most startling call-up is arguably that of Alijoni Aini (pictured below); the Lokomotiv-Pamir talent and standout for Tajikistan's highly competitive U-17 national team, who is in line to make his senior debut at just 16 years of age.
Toshev will be further buoyed by the emergence of 20-year-old striker Shahrom Samiev, who has enjoyed an exceptional run of form for Dinamo-Auto Tiraspol in Moldova, bagging four goals in his last two matches.
At the opposite end of the age spectrum is Ilhomjon Barotov, the 30-year-old striker who has been selected after scoring a league-best 18 goals for Istaravshan last season having not featured in any of the earlier Qualifiers.
Are there any worries?
In front of a restricted home crowd of up to 10,000 fans, Tajikistan will be confident of once again beating the team they took all three points from in Ulaanbaatar back in September 2019, but the Central Asians are not without their challenges.
The Tajikistan coaching staff knew long ago that midfielder Ehson Panshanbe, a starter in every game in their Asian Qualifiers campaign so far, would miss the next match through suspension, but two unexpected, last-minute injury blows will have been unwelcome news.
Experienced right-back Iskandar Dzhalilov is set for a lengthy stint on the sidelines after suffering a serious injury while in the national camp, while left-back Farhod Vosiev became another late casualty after receiving a knock training for Russian Premier League club Tambov.
TAJIKISTAN v MONGOLIA
Central Republican Stadium, Dushanbe
Kick-off - 18:00 (UTC+5)
Photos: Tajikistan Football Federation
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