HONG KONG (Reuters) - Asia’s lesser lights will look to steal a march on their more illustrious rivals on Thursday when the second round of the continent’s qualifying campaign for the 2022 World Cup begins in 16 cities around the region.
With the top seeds in each of the eight groups - including World Cup regulars such as South Korea, Japan, Australia and Iran - not commencing their campaigns until next Tuesday, the nations looking to usurp the established order have an early opportunity to make a mark.
Uzbekistan are among those hoping to mount a challenge for one of the four guaranteed berths at the finals in Qatar, with former Egypt coach Hector Cuper signed up to lead the country to a maiden qualification.
The Central Asian nation, who went close to sealing a place at the 2006 finals in Germany, start their latest attempt in Palestine and the Argentine believes a winning start will stand his team in good stead.
“It’s always very important to start with three points, because a favourable result will lay the foundation for the next victories,” Cuper told the Asian Football Confederation’s official website.
“Talking about Palestine, I should state that they are a really tough and aggressive opponent who will be trying to take advantage of playing in front of their fans.
“Moreover, playing on an artificial pitch is always unpleasant for players who are not accustomed to playing on this kind of surface conditions. But we are going to do everything possible in order to get a good result.”
The first place finishers in each group is guaranteed to advance to the next round of Asia’s qualification campaign, with the four best runners-up across the eight groups also advancing.
The 12 teams will be drawn into two groups of six, with the top two teams certain of a place at the finals.
Uzbekistan share their group with five-time finalists Saudi Arabia as well as Palestine, Yemen and Singapore, ensuring Cuper and his team will face a serious challenge in the attempt to progress to the next round.
“There is no team to be underestimated in our group,” Cuper said.
“In theory, Saudi Arabia may seem to be the main contender to win the group as they were in the first pot during the draw, but now they need to prove it on the pitch also.”
The task facing the countries who are hoping to muscle in on Asia’s established order is monumental.
South Korea have the continent’s most impressive qualification record and are aiming to secure an appearance at a 10th consecutive World Cup - and 11th in total - while the Japanese are also a dominant force, having played at every tournament since 1998.
Australia, too, are one of the powerhouses of the region, booking their place at each World Cup since their second qualification was sealed in Germany in 2006. Iran, meanwhile, are aiming to qualify for a third finals in a row and a fifth in total.
The United Arab Emirates will be favourites to emerge from Group G, which also features Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia.
China should be strong enough to secure a way out of Group A, where they are joined by Syria, the Philippines, Guam and the Maldives.
Jordan will present the biggest threat to Australia in Group B, which also includes Chinese Taipei, Nepal and Kuwait, with Iran’s meeting with Iraq the highlight of a Group C that also features Hong Kong, Bahrain and Cambodia.
World Cup hosts Qatar feature in the qualifiers, which also double up as eliminators for the 2023 Asian Cup, and have been drawn in Group E with Bangladesh, India, Oman and Afghanistan.
Japan being their campaign against Myanmar next week in Group F, where Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Mongolia will also play and South Korea will go head-to-head with North Korea in Group H along with Turkmenistan, Lebanon and Sri Lanka.
Reporting by Michael Church, Editing by Pritha Sarkar