The 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers return to Asia this week. With 12 nations fighting for the four direct berths on offer, the competition will get tougher, the stakes higher and the margin for error finer than it has been before.
Iran, South Korea, United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon make up Group A of the Asian qualifiers in the third round while Japan, Australia, Saudi Arabia, China PR, Oman and Vietnam will face off in Group B.
The games will take place in a 'home-and-away' round-robin format with the top two teams from each group joining the world's best teams in next year's World Cup. Meanwhile, the two third-placed teams will face off in the fourth round to decide who will represent Asia in the intercontinental play-off.
As the third round of the qualification campaign unfolds over 10 matchdays starting this week and culminating in March 2022, we look at what the football fans across the continent and beyond can expect from the final stages of World Cup qualifying in Asia.
Can turbulent Syria spring a surprise in Group A?
Syria head into the third round of the qualifiers with a third different manager of the campaign at the helm. Nizar Mahrous has taken charge of the Qasioun Eagles following the resignation of Nabil Maaloul, who guided the nation to the final round. But, the Syrians have already proven they are not ones to be deterred by managerial changes.
It was Fajr Ibrahim who coached the side as they began the qualification campaign with five wins from as many matches. But as the competition resumed following the COVID-19 break, it was former Tunisia star Maaloul who helped them cross the line collecting six points from the available nine.
New coach Mahrous, in his fourth stint with Syria, has the chance to create history by guiding the country to its first-ever World Cup appearance after falling just short in 2018. Yet, standing in their way will be two giants of Asian football in the form of South Korea and Iran.
Regulars at the top echelons of football, Iran are looking to book a third consecutive appearance at the World Cup while Paulo Bento's South Korea will reach an 11th World Cup if they can reproduce the form from the second round. Throw in Bert van Marwijk's UAE into the mix and things could very well heat up in Group A.
Who will stop Japan and Australia in Group B?
The competition for places could be even tighter in Group B as Japan and Australia are almost always expected to make it to the World Cup finals. Japan, in particular, are clear favourites to progress having coasted through the second round winning all eight of their engagements.
Nonetheless, it would be foolish to immediately disregard a Saudi Arabia outfit looking to make their second consecutive World Cup as the tournament visits neighbouring Qatar next year. The Green Falcons are on the rise again after a disappointing 2019 AFC Asian Cup with Herve Renard now the man in charge.
Li Tie's China will also be a force to reckon with in the coming months despite this being only their second time reaching the final stages of the qualifiers. The last time they made it this far was back in 2002 when they managed to make it to their first and only World Cup so far.
Southeast Asian champions Vietnam, one of the most improved sides in Asia in recent years, can pose a tricky challenge for the big names as they debut in the final stage. That makes up for an exciting Group B, and the race for Qatar 2022 could very well go down to the wire between these Asian powerhouses.
Who are the players to watch out for?
There will be no shortage of stars in action across the continent as the 12 nations fight it out for international football's ultimate honour. The star-studded South Korean side will be headlined by Tottenham's talismanic forward Son Heung-min, while Arsenal fans can catch an early glimpse of their new signing Takehiro Tomiyasu in action for Japan.
Salem Al-Dawsari will continue to be a key player for Saudi Arabia while Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who has rediscovered his form since moving to Feyenoord from Brighton, and Sardar Azmoun, who was denied a move from Zenit this summer, will be the ones to keep a close eye on when Iran take to the field.
Syria will rest their hopes on the attacking duo of Omar Kharbin and Omar Al-Soma, and Elkeson and his fellow naturalised stars will be keen to deliver what they were brought in to achieve -- a World Cup berth for China. UAE will turn to Ali Mabkhout, top scorer in the second round with 11 strikes, for goals.
While veteran Hassan Maatouk will look to take Lebanon farther in the qualification journey, there will be young stars like Vietnam's Nguyen Quang Hai, Iraq's Mohanad Ali and Oman's Muhsen Al-Ghassani who will also want to make a mark in the Road to Qatar.