AFC Asian Qualifiers: Group C [Preview]

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AFC – KUALA LUMPUR, After more than 18 months of inactivity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Asian Qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023 returns.

Group C is among the most intriguing in the competition, with Iraq leading the way from Bahrain and five-time FIFA World Cup qualifiers the Islamic Republic of Iran sitting in third, with a crucial game in hand over the teams above them.

Here, looks at the situation in the group as the five teams prepare to lock horns and pick out a key player to watch from each of the teams.

The Venues

Built in 1982, the Bahrain National Stadium, located in Riffa, has served as the focal point for many of the most famous moments in the history of Bahraini football.

The 30,000-seater stadium will host Bahrain’s games against Cambodia, Iran and Hong Kong and has previously served as the centrepiece for numerous regional and continental competitions.

The stadium was the main venue during the country’s hosting of the Gulf Cup on three occasions – in 1986, 1998 and 2013 – and has been used in several Asian Football Confederation tournaments, most recently hosting the final of the 2016 AFC U19 Championship.

Two other stadiums will feature during the Qualifiers, with matches also due to be held at the Al Muharraq Stadium in Arad and at the Khalifa Sports City Stadium in Isa.

Al Muharraq Stadium, which holds a maximum of 10,000 supporters, will play host when the Iranians face off against Hong Kong and when Iraq meet Cambodia, as well as Iraq’s meeting with Hong Kong.

The 15,000-capacity Khalifa Sports City Stadium, which was also a venue when the AFC U19 Championship was played in Bahrain in 2016, will feature two matches of the Islamic Republic of Iran, namely their heavily anticipated clash with Iraq and the meeting with Cambodia.

The Group in Context

Group C is finely poised going into the final phase of qualifying, with Srecko Katanec’s Iraq side leading the way after their first five games with an unbeaten record that will make them the favourites ahead of June’s matches.

The Iraqis – looking to qualify for the FIFA World Cup finals for the first time since their debut appearance back in 1986 – have dropped points only twice in the second round, with a pair of draws against Bahrain blemishing an otherwise perfect record.

That includes a 2-1 victory over great rivals the Islamic Republic of Iran back in November 2019 in Amman, which came courtesy of Alaa Abbas’ injury time winner and established the Iraqis firmly at the head of the group with 11 points from five matches.

That, though, does not mean Katanec and his team will be able to relax. Two points behind in second are hosts Bahrain, who have also yet to lose in the current phase of qualifying having won twice – against Cambodia and the Iranians – and drawn three times.

Home field advantage will no doubt boost Helio Sousa’s team as they seek a pathway into the next phase of qualifying, with the aim to qualify for the Finals of the FIFA World Cup for the first time in their history.

The Iranians, who are no strangers to the FIFA World Cup having qualified on five previous occasions including the two most recent editions, lie in wait in third position, hoping to finally ignite a campaign that has yet to take off.

Dragan Skocic has replaced the ineffective Marc Wilmots as coach and, with a game in hand over the teams around them, Team Melli retain strong hopes of topping the group or at least taking the runners-up slot.

Sitting on six points from four matches, the Iranians have won twice and lost twice and will be hoping to start strongly when they face Hong Kong in their opening game on June 3 to give their campaign a much-needed jolt.

Hong Kong, though, only trail Skocic’s side by a solitary point and put up a strong performance against the Iranians when they met earlier in the competition at Hong Kong Stadium. Mixu Paatelainen’s team, however, will be outsiders for a top two finish, even though mathematically they retain a chance.

The one team out of the reckoning for the next round of the FIFA World Cup is Cambodia, who prop up the group with a solitary point earned on the opening day with a 1-1 draw against Hong Kong. A strong showing in Bahrain, though, may help in their quest to avoid going into the playoffs for a berth in the third round of qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup.

Key Men

Mohanad Ali – Iraq

Young tyro Mohanad Ali has already established himself as one of the finest up-and-coming players in West Asia and his talents in front of goal have seen him make his mark in these qualifiers as ‘Mimi’ continues to try to live up to his tag as the successor to the great Younis Mahmoud.

The 20-year-old – he turns 21 five days after the conclusion of the second round of qualifying – has already scored in all but one of his nation’s five qualifiers so far and there is no reason not expect more of the same from the talented Qatar-based striker.

Abdulla Yusuf Helal – Bahrain

Abdulla Yusuf Helal has quietly but effectively turned himself into one of the leading Bahraini players of his generation as he has steadily built a career in Europe while also shining for the national team.

The 1.97m-tall striker became one of the first Bahrainis to play in Europe when he signed for Bohemians 1905 in the Czech Republic in 2018 and he has since gone on to feature for Slovan Liberec, for whom he scored in the UEFA Europa League against Belgian side Gent last October.

Mehdi Taremi – Islamic Republic of Iran

Mehdi Taremi was already one of the biggest stars of Iranian football before this season, but his performances for Porto in both the Portuguese league and in the UEFA Champions League have taken his fame to another level.

Quick and agile, the former Persepolis forward can play through the centre or come in off the flanks in support of fellow hotshot Sardar Azmoun in an Iranian forward line as potent as any in the country’s remarkable history.

Yapp Hung Fai – Hong Kong

With the status of Hong Kong’s most capped player, Yapp Hung Fai has been a stalwart between the posts for the former British colony since making his debut in 2010 when aged just 19.

Even by then he had already made a name for himself with the territory’s U23 team, putting in a stellar performance as Hong Kong defeated Japan to win the gold medal in a penalty shootout in the final of the East Asian Games. A fine shot stopper whose experience in organising his defence adds to his value.

Keo Sokpheng – Cambodia

The 27-year-old striker has already made a mark on the qualifying tournament for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 when he scored his country’s first – and so far only – goal in Group C as he netted the equaliser in their 1-1 draw with Hong Kong on Matchday One.

Usually operating as a central striker Keo, who became the first Cambodian to play in the Malaysian league when he spent a short spell with PKNP in 2018, can also play on the wing.

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