By Paul Nicholson
March 12 – The restart of Asia’s international football calendar is rapidly taking shape. Yesterday the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) rolled outs its plan for the centralised group stages of its 2021 Champions League, today it laid out the blueprint for the centralised completion of the group stages of the Asian qualifiers for both the Asian Cup 2023 and the Qatar 2022 World Cup.
Having postponed competitive play for the March international window, the AFC has scheduled May 31 to June 15 for the completion of groups that will be hosted in China, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Japan, the UAE and the Korean Republic.
More than 60 matches in the Asian qualifier group stages remain to be played with all teams having already completed between four and six fixtures. The March international window will still see four qualifiers played but the rest have been moved to June.
From the group stages, the top teams then go into two groups of six – another 60 matches – with the top two in each group qualifying for Qatar 2022 and the third placed teams competing for the continental play-off slot. Those matches need to be completed by March 2022.
Those top 12 teams automatically qualify for the Asian Cup 2023 with further qualifications rounds for the other 12 qualifiers for that competition to be played.
China were one of the first nations to commit to hosting and will host Syria, Philippines, Maldives and Guam in a Group A where they already trail Syria by 8 points but have a game in hand with four to play.
Kuwait, second in group B behind Australia by two points, will welcome Jordan, Nepal and Chinese Taipei. Bahrain, second in Group C by two points behind Iran, will also host Hong Kong and Cambodia.
Saudi Arabia, who have also committed to hosting three Champions League groups in June, will host Group D rivals Uzbekistan, Singapore, Yemen and Palestine. The Uzbeks lead the group by a point over Saudi who have a game in hand,
Qatar, will welcome Group E opponents Oman, Afghanistan, India and Bangladesh while Japan will stage Group F comprising Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Myanmar and Mongolia. Both hosts are comfortable group leaders.
The closest fought group currently is Group G which is led by Vietnam who are two points ahead of Malaysia and a further point in front of Thailand. Hosts UAE are two points off Thailand but have a game in hand with four to play.
Group K, to be hosted in South Korea, is similarly tight. The hosts are on the same points as Lebanon and DPR Korea, a point behind Turkmenistan but with a game in hand.
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