ACL Semi-finalists on show
Kuala Lumpur: As national teams across the Continent prepare to assume the limelight during the Asian Qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023, a number of players still vying for AFC Champions League glory will turn their attention to the international scene.
With the first leg of the 2019 AFC Champions League semi-finals already concluded, club football takes a short break as all eyes turn towards the Matchday Three and Four fixtures of the Asian Qualifiers, which take place on Thursday and Tuesday.
A total of 25 players, from three of the four remaining club teams, will don the shirts of their respective countries as their journeys to reach Qatar in 2022 and China PR a year later continue in what promises to be a fascinating double-header of matches.
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The Riyadh club are strongly placed to reach a third AFC Champions League final after their 4-1 win over Al Sadd and six of the players involved in that impressive victory in Doha have been selected by Herve Renard for Saudi Arabia's Group D encounters with Singapore and Palestine.
Attacking full-backs Mohammed Al Burayk and Yasser Al Shahrani will likely assume their roles on the right and left flanks respectively, while Ali Al Bulayhi – fresh from scoring in the win against Al Sadd – will hope to be selected in the centre of defence.
Elsewhere, the long-term partnership of Salman Al Faraj and Abdullah Otayf will look to stamp their authority in the middle of the park, with the Al Hilal contingent completed by Hattan Bahebri, who scored in September’s 2-2 draw against Yemen.
Salem Al Dawsari saved the Saudis’ blushes by netting the equaliser against the Yemenis but misses out this time through injury, while goalkeeper Abdullah Al Mayouf and Mohamed Kanno are two more absentees from the previous squad.
The six chosen players are flying high with Al Hilal on the Continent and need to do likewise for the Green Falcons, with victory against Singapore in Buraidah on Thursday crucial ahead of a tricky looking trip to Al Ram to face Palestine.
With 10 players from Al Sadd having jetted off for international duty, Xavi Hernandez’s training ground in the coming days is likely to be a quiet place as eight of his Qatar stars and a further two from Korea Republic have been called up by their countries.
Goalkeeper Saad Al Sheeb kept clean sheets in the 6-0 Group E win over Oman and subsequent scoreless draw with India and he will look to continue that run against Bangladesh and Oman, while defenders Abdelkarim Hassan, Pedro Miguel and Terek Salman have also been selected by Felix Sanchez.
India are the only Asian team to have stopped the Continental champions scoring in 2019, so Qatari fans will hope forward-thinking players such as Hassan Al Haydos and Akram Afif will be back on the scoresheet in Dhaka.
Boualem Khoukhi and Salem Al Hajri, meanwhile, round off the eight players who aim to return to winning ways in Bangladesh, before returning to more familiar surroundings for the home clash against Oman in Al Wakrah next Tuesday.
Elsewhere, both Nam Tae-hee and Jung Woo-young, who netted in the 2-0 Group H win over Turkmenistan last month, received the call from Korea Republic head coach Paulo Bento for the home fixture against Sri Lanka and mouthwatering derby against DPR Korea in Pyongyang.
With DPR Korea top having won two from two, Tuesday’s game at Kim Il-sung Stadium takes on extra significance as the Taeguk Warriors – who have played only one – look to avoid falling six points behind their neighbours.
In their Asian Qualifier Group A opener against Maldives last month, China PR head coach Marcello Lippi called up eight players from his former employers, and the Italian tactician has returned to the well again with seven of those once more named in the squad to face Guam and Philippines.
On Matchday One, defender Zhang Lipeng and forward Elkeson featured in Male while attacker Wei Shihao played a cameo role off the bench.
Elkeson, who netted an international debut brace in the 5-0 win at Rasmee Dhandu Stadium, retains his place as does Zhang and Wei, while veteran Zheng Zhi, defender Gao Zhunyi, midfielder Xu Xin and forward Yang Liyu make the squad again despite not getting playing time in the Maldives.
The big change is that midfielder Huang Bowen misses out, while goalkeeper Zeng Cheng returns to the fold despite being beaten, albeit by two stunning strikes, in the 2-0 first leg defeat to Urawa Red Diamonds in the 2019 AFC Champions League semi-final on October 2.
Centre-back Park Ji-soo, who did not feature in Korea Republic's Matchday One Group H victory away at Turkmenistan, is in the Taeguk Warriors squad for the visit of Sri Lanka and the crunch tie away at DPR Korea.
Urawa Red Diamonds
Despite having one foot in the 2019 AFC Champions League final after their semi-final first leg victory against Guangzhou in Saitama, Urawa will once again have no representatives in Japan's squad for the Asian Qualifiers.
With the return meeting in southern China and a difficult set of domestic fixtures to come, and Tsuyoshi Otsuki's side only a few points clear of the relegation zone, Urawa may well be glad of the respite.
Photos: Chinese Football Association, Saudi Arabia National Team, Qatar Football Association
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