Five questions Asia’s hopefuls need answered in final international break before World Cup

In Asia


The 2022 FIFA World Cup is almost upon us.

In just two months, the four-year wait will be over as the biggest tournament in world football once again gets underway – this time in Qatar from Nov. 20 to Dec. 18.

With the competition taking place in the winter this time around, competition schedules across the globe have been shifted to accommodate for a mid-season break.

What this also means is that — since the start of the new European club football campaign back in August — the current international break is the only one that countries will get before November comes around and they have to start finalising their squads ahead of a few more pre-tournament friendlies.

With that in mind, what are the big questions hanging over Asia’s World Cup hopefuls that will hopefully be answered over the next week or so?

Are Qatar going to prove the real deal?

As hosts, expectations will be high for Qatar but it should also be remembered that they have never competed at this level before.

They are however the reigning AFC Asian Cup champions and have gained valuable experience with guest appearances at both the 2019 Copa America and last year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup — where they made a creditable run to the semifinals before ultimately falling to a narrow 1-0 loss to eventual winners United States.

Their most recent outing on Tuesday did however result in a disappointing 3-0 loss to Croatia U-23 in an unofficial friendly.

They will be hoping for better showings in the coming days against a Canada outfit that are also headed for the World Cup, as well as a Chile side that should offer a real challenge through the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal and Ben Brereton Diaz.

In Almoez Ali and Akram Afif, Qatar do have some talent in their ranks but whether or not they can rise to the occasion could be the difference between success and failure in the Maroons’ World Cup debut.

Will Carlos Queiroz make an immediate impact?

Iran‘s prospects of reaching the knockout round of the World Cup for the first time were given a huge boost with the recent return of Carlos Queiroz as coach.

This year’s tournament will be the third consecutive World Cup with the Portuguese at the helm of Team Melli, and they will certainly take heart from their displays last time out — when they narrowly missed out on progressing by just a point from a daunting group that also included Spain and Portugal.

The reappointment of Queiroz is one that has been welcomed by fans but also players, not just because of the regard they held him in previously but also because several senior members of the team were believed to have had uneasy relationships with his predecessor Dragan Skocic.

Queiroz has wasted no time in recalling some of his favourites and the Iran squad is one brimming with talent and experience in Europe-based names such as Mehdi Taremi, Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Sardar Azmoun.

Both Iran and their returning coach can make an immediate statement in upcoming games against quality opposition in Uruguay and Senegal.

Can inexperienced Saudi Arabia hold up against world’s best?

The curious thing with the current Saudi Arabia squad is, for a team that is not exactly the youngest, they are not exactly the most experienced on the international stage.

From the latest roster for games against Ecuador and United States, only five players boast over 50 caps and 17 actually have 30 caps or less to their names.

This should not automatically be viewed as a weakness for there are several late bloomers within the Saudi Arabia team, including the impressive towering centre-back Abdullah Madu.

But it is a bit of an anomaly that the Green Falcons could potentially have a back four with an average age of 30.25 years but only 36 caps each across them. The situation does not get better in attack with 22-year-old Firas Al-Buraikan (six goals in 22 caps) the most-experienced option.

It does suggest that Saudi Arabia will need to be driven by their midfield brigade, which boasts the most experience in Fahad Al-Muwallad, Salman Al-Faraj and Salem Al-Dawsari, who at present combine for a healthy 203 international appearances.

Could Japan be in desperate need of a bona fide No. 9?

Since the last World Cup in Russia, Yuya Osako has led the line for Japan and, while he may not exactly be a prolific scorer, he has always offered plenty as the focal point in attack bringing others into the game.

With Osako missing for the upcoming friendlies against United States and Ecuador, it remains to be seen who could fill his void.

All four options that coach Hajime Moriyasu are severely lacking in international experience. Even with the most senior of the lot in Celtic man Kyogo Furuhashi, Moriyasu has previously shown an apprehension to turn to him as the main man in attack throughout the Asian qualifiers for the World Cup.

Daizen Maeda and Ayase Ueda both have the potential — and desire — to try and prove they can perform the No. 9 role for the Samurai Blue at the World Cup, even if they have only combined for a solitary goal at international level.

Should none of these options stand up to the test over the next week or so, Moriyasu might be best served recalling Osako or one of the old guard — even if his reluctance to blood fresher faces has previously been a criticism directed at him.

How well equipped is Son Heung-min’s supporting cast?

With Son Heung-min‘s 13-minute hat-trick off the bench against Leicester for Tottenham at the weekend, everyone invested in South Korea‘s fortunes breathed easy once again.

With Son up and running for the season, the South Koreans can once again dream of making their mark in Qatar at the end of the year.

Yet, even if they may not need a Plan B for now, they still need a supporting cast to back up their leading man, so how exactly are Son’s teammates faring so far this season?

At the back, Kim Min-jae is in career-best form and has made an instant impact since his move to Serie A with Napoli while Lee Jae-sung continues to be a steady performer for Bundesliga outfit Mainz, but there are others that are in need of improvement.

Hwang Ui-jo and Hwang In-beom are currently finding their feet after both moved to Olympiakos in the summer and can be given some leeway given they have previously been consistent contributors, while Hwang Hee-chan is doing his best to get more starting XI action at Wolves.

Nonetheless, it is Lee Kang-in and Jeong Woo-yeong — who have both been previously touted as the next big thing for South Korea — that should really be beginning to play a more prominent role with the Taegeuk Warriors. Perhaps that can start in the coming ties against Costa Rica and Cameroon.



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