Qualifying in the Asian Zone for the FIFA World Cup™ used to provide a perfect setting for not only young talent to emerge, but also for the veteran stars to shine. Not surprisingly, it was a host of seasoned campaigners that set the continental stage ablaze during Asia's opening two matchdays of the third qualifying round for Brazil 2014 as their respective teams got off to a satisfying start.
Adding to their unrivaled skills, their valuable experience and leadership has made such veteraned players stand out as they either single-handedly steered their sides to victory, or made the difference providing crucial goals and assists. With the qualifying stage reaching the midway mark on Tuesday, these evergreen stars are expected to continue to play pivotal roles.
Maksim Shatskikh (Uzbekistan)
In an Uzbekistan squad that features the likes of former AFC Player of the Year Server Djeparov and Aleksandr Geynrikh, it was 33-year-old Maksim Shatskikh that stamped his authority in their qualifying opener against Tajikistan by netting the only goal. Arguably the most phenomenal goalscorer the former Soviet Republic has produced over the past decade, the striking veteran has proved a consistent performer for his country, racking up 34 goals in 41 appearances during his 12-year international career.
The Central Asians next face Korea DPR in Pyongyang on Tuesday, a game "they must battle to win" according to coach Vadim Abramov if they are to progress as the top-two finishers from their section that also features Japan. Needless to say, Shatskikh's goalscoring form will be key for an Uzbekistan victory as the manager told FIFA.com: "Although physical energy is not the advantage for a seasoned player like Shatskikh, he has proved he is still in his scoring prime despite his age. I am hoping he can continue to help the team with his experiences against the North Koreans."
Zheng Zhi (China PR)
Jose Antonio Camacho got his tenure with China off to a good start as his side came from behind to defeat Singapore 2-1 in their opener. However, the former Spain manager had the newly-returned Zheng Zhi to thank, who proved vital to China's comeback win. Sent on as a substitute midway through the second half, the 31-year-old former Charlton and Celtic midfielder drew his side level from the spot, before initiating a move which led to the game-winning goal.
Having impressed upon his first international return in two years, the two-time Chinese Player of the Year continued his creative role in a match against Jordan, a game in which China dominated from the outset only to suffer an unlikely 2-1 loss. The result has left China with few options but to secure a win in their next home game against Iraq in order to maintain their top-two place in the group. Should Zheng Zhi, who was on target in the two sides’ 1-1 draw on the road to South Africa 2010, keep up his current form, China may well be inspired to go through.
Lucas Neill (Australia)
Australia have been undergoing a transitional period under coach Holger Osieck with a series of young hopefuls breaking into the national team. However, even with that influx of new talent, the experienced core that featured in their qualifying campaign four years ago remains intact. Perhaps the most notable mainstay is Socceroos captain Lucas Neill, who forms a solid centre-back partnership with Sasa Ognenovski. The 33-year-old former Everton man guided his side to victory over Thailand and Saudi Arabia respectively, directing the Aussie squad and providing fine distribution from the backline.
Neill enters their next qualifying outing against Oman with an added boost of confidence as he scored Al Jazira's only goal in a 1-0 Etisalat Cup win. With a third win enough to see Australia edge closer to early progression, Neill is expected to keep up his brilliant displays of late and help guide his side through.
Also taking an eye-catching spot among these veterans is Australia’s long-standing goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer, although the 38-year-old Fullam custodian looks likely to miss the Oman match due to a back injury. Topping the list by age, though, is Singapore’s 41-year-old forward Aleksandar Duric, who opened the scoring against China as his side came close to causing a major upset in the opener.