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WC qualifying set to resume in Asia

A contentious meeting between Japan and South Korea may feature European-based stars but a match of more significance in Asia involves Tajikistan hosting Mongolia on Thursday, marking the resumption of continental qualification for the 2022 World Cup after a gap of 16 months.

Under the original schedule, Asian qualifying should be into the third round with 12 teams competing for four automatic spots in Qatar.

But after numerous postponements because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are still 40 teams contesting the second round.

As well as Japan’s qualifier with Mongolia on March 30, Saudi Arabia continue their World Cup campaign at home to Palestine.

Then the majority of Asian teams will resume World Cup qualification in June, including Australia’s meeting with Kuwait.

Tajikistan, who haven’t played since November 2019, are expected to have the support of 10,000 fans in Dushanbe later this week.

They can move up to second place in Group F behind Japan with a win.

“We can see that work done to improve standards in Tajikistan … and there are better players coming through,” Tajikistan coach Usmon Toshev said.

“These games have been postponed many times but now we are looking only at the three points.”

Mongolia, 190th in the FIFA rankings and last in Group F, face a tough trip to Japan five days after taking on Tajikistan.

That’s when Japan will resume their campaign to appear at a seventh successive World Cup.

Japan will prepare with a high-profile friendly against South Korea in Yokohama.

With the Japanese city only just coming out of a state of emergency amid the pandemic, the decision to proceed with the game has attracted widespread criticism in both countries and abroad.

However, Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu defended the staging of the game and his selections.

“We understand that there is debate,” Moriyasu said.

“But we hope people will understand the significance of the national team representing Japan in these times.”

South Korea’s coach Paulo Bento also called for understanding.

“All members of our society are working in their respective fields, as far as circumstances allow them to do so,” Bento said.

“And although we’re being affected by health and safety protocol, we’ll have to do the best we can within those confines.”

Japan have called up eight European-based players for matches during the international window.

Only the eight group winners and the four best-performing second-placed teams will progress to the third round.

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