Asia Group A: Players to watch

  • takes a look at the stars of the third round of Asian qualifiers

  • We turn the spotlight on some of the potential game-changers in Group A

  • Free-scoring forwards, midfield maestros and solid defenders should all have a part to play

The Asian qualifying campaign for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ has now reached its most decisive phase. The 60 matches that make up the third round, which will play out from 2 September 2021 to 29 March 2022, will determine which four teams the continent sends as its representatives to next year’s festival of football.

With the 12 remaining sides split into two groups and the big kick-off scheduled for Thursday, runs the rule over some of the stars aiming to turn their countries’ dreams of advancing to Qatar 2022 into a reality, starting with the teams placed in Group A.

GOYANG, SOUTH KOREA - JUNE 05: Son Heung-Min of South Korea in action during the FIFA World Cup Asian Qualifier 2nd round Group H match between South Korea and Turkmenistan at Goyang Stadium on June 05, 2021 in Goyang, South Korea. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Son Heungmin – Korea Republic

Midfielder, 29 The highly experienced Son Heungmin, who has appeared at two World Cups and is a consistent performer with Tottenham Hotspur in the English Premier League, is regarded as the driving force of this current South Korean side. Son played in all six of his team’s second-round qualifying matches, scoring three goals. The Taegeuk Warriors talisman is an indispensable component in Paulo Bento’s starting XI: his nose for goal, fantastic ability with the ball at his feet, and proficiency in dead-ball situations constitute a serious and constant threat to opposing defences.

Karim Ansari IRN

Karim Ansarifard – IR Iran

Forward, 31 Fans of IR Iran have their fingers crossed that Karim Ansarifard, an essential element of his team’s attacking triumvirate alongside Sardar Azmoun and Mahdi Taremi, can continue where he left off in the second round of qualifying, during which he found the net seven times. Having gained significant experience in leagues in Europe (in Spain, Greece and England) and with two World Cups – including Russia 2018, where he was the only Iranian to score, against Portugal in the group stage – already under his belt, he will undoubtedly prove to be a major asset for Dragan Skocic’s side in the challenges that lie ahead.

Ali Mabkhout UAE

Ali Mabkhout – United Arab Emirates

Forward, 30 The UAE’s all-time leading marksman, Ali Mabkhout, currently sits atop the scoring charts for the Asian qualifiers with an impressive 11 goals, a tally that is likely to increase during the third round, given his record in high-pressure games such as these. Mabkhout finished as top scorer at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup with five goals, and since making his international debut against Czech Republic in 2009, he has struck the back of the net 76 times in 92 matches, which equates to an average of 0.83 per game. Opposing defenders will therefore need to be at their most alert to stop him from adding further remarkable statistics to his footballing CV.

Ali Adnan IRQ

Ali Adnan – Iraq

Defender, 27 It is impossible to discuss Iraq’s resolute rearguard without mentioning the outstanding Ali Adnan, one of the team’s longest-serving full-backs. Part of the national squads that travelled to the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup and the 2016 Men’s Olympic Football Tournament, where he rubbed shoulders with a number of other current Iraqi internationals, he has also gained invaluable experience at club level, in Turkey, Italy and the USA. Dick Advocaat will be counting on Adnan’s acumen to snuff out any attacking threats in the upcoming qualifiers, and perhaps to also chip in at the other end, following his two goals for the Lions of Mesopotamia during the second-round stage.

Mahmoud Al Mawas SYR

Mahmoud Al Mawas – Syria

Midfielder, 28 Mahmoud Al Mawas is the Syrian squad’s most seasoned campaigner, having racked up 73 caps since making his bow in 2012. He has not lacked for experience in his club career either, with stints in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Romania. Considering the absence of Syria’s sidelined star, Omar Al Soma, Al Mawas’ ability to support his team’s attacking players will be even more crucial than usual. The midfielder took part in all of Syria’s second-round matches, notching six goals.

Joan Oumari of Lebanon in action. Photo courtesy of Adnan Hajj Ali

Joan Oumari – Lebanon

Defender, 33 Veteran centre-back Joan Oumari may not wear the captain’s armband, but his consistency has made him one of the Lebanese national side’s most iconic figures. Born in Germany, he represented Lebanon for the first time in 2013, and he has been one of the first names on the teamsheet ever since. He played a key leadership role in helping the Cedars qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup, where he played in all three group games. Oumari, who is renowned for his physical prowess and powerful heading game, has plied his trade in the Japanese J1 League since 2018.