In under a fortnight, we will know the four nations who will represent Asia at the 2018 FIFA World Cup and, ahead of the two final rounds of qualifiers that begin on Tuesday, the-AFC.com takes a look at the key players from each of the 12 teams who will be in action as the Road to Russia nears its thrilling climax.
Son Heung-min, Korea Republic
In August 2015, Son Heung-min became the most expensive Asian player in football history after signing for Tottenham Hotspur. The forward had a mixed beginning at Spurs but has gone on to become an important member of the first-team and broke several Asian scoring records in the Premier League last season.
For Korea Republic, Son remains pivotal and is assured of his place in the attack line of his nation where he brings his eye-catching skills to the fore.
Mehdi Taremi, Islamic Republic of Iran
Striker Mehdi Taremi follows a long line of top class attacking players who have passed through the ranks of Persepolis while also showcasing their talents for Iran’s national team on the Asian stage.
Taremi can play as an out-and-out striker or on the left side of the attack, as he often does for the national team in support of Sardar Azmoun, and his eye for goal has seen him excel in this year’s AFC Champions League.
Wu Lei, China
A savior for his nation and his club alike forward Wu Lei enjoyed a stellar 2016, scoring a slew of vital goals for Shanghai SIPG and China.
His performances last year merited a nomination for AFC Player of the Year and, although he lost out to eventual winner Omar Abdulrahman, the 25-year-old continues to shine bright as one of the best and most creative Chinese attackers in recent times.
Odil Ahmedov, Uzbekistan
Odil Ahmedov is Uzbekistan’s captain, all-action midfielder, and central engine. Having signed for Shanghai SIPG ahead of the 2017 season, the Uzbek star returned to Asia after six years in the Russian league.
A four-time Uzbekistan Player of the Year, Ahmedov is capable of breaking up opponents’ attacks, creating goals and scoring them himself, as witnessed at the 2011 AFC Asian Cup when he netted a 35-yard screamer in the tournament’s opener.
Hassan Al Haydos, Qatar
Captain Hassan Al Haydos has had a strong creative influence on the Qatar national side in recent years, either providing the drive from attacking midfield, on the flanks or up front while also delivering many of the team’s set plays.
A fine free kick taker, the 26-year-old won the AFC Champions League with Al Sadd in 2011 and was Qatar’s Player of the Year in 2015. He was also a member of the Gulf Cup winning side in 2014.
Omar Khribin, Syria
Talented forward Omar Khribin is arguably one of the most exciting forwards to emerge from the gulf nations in recent times. Top scoring for Syria in the second round of 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying, the 23-year-old also enjoyed a superb 2016 season at Al Dhafra in the UAE top flight which earned him a move to Saudi giants Al Hilal after a successful loan period.
Khribin excels as either a false 10 or up front with his physical and technical skills making him the complete forward.
Aaron Mooy, Australia
Signed for Huddersfield Town after a successful loan from Manchester City, playmaker Aaron Mooy lit up the English second tier last year with some wonderful performances and has been equally impressive in his debut Premier League campaign so far.
Blessed with superb vision, passing and technical ability, the 26-year-old midfielder is central to Ange Potstecoglou’s Socceroos side and hopes of World Cup qualification. Born in Sydney, Mooy was formerly on the books of A-League clubs Western Sydney Wanderers and Melbourne City.
Shinji Okazaki, Japan
Striker Shinji Okazaki’s first season at Leicester City has to be considered a success, as he became only the second Japanese player to win the Premier League after compatriot Shinji Kagawa.
While the 2016/2017 domestic campaign in England was more problematic, he has started this season in fine form with two goals in two games. And Okazaki is still the spearhead of the Samurai Blue attack, having netted 50 international goals.
Nawaf Al Abed, Saudi Arabia
Al Hilal midfielder Nawaf Al Abed has been in sparkling form in the final round of World Cup qualifying so far, netting four times in five games. The 27-year-old scored the winners against Thailand and Iraq while also netting in the 3-0 win over the United Arab Emirates.
A versatile option for both club and country, where he can play on the wing or even as a second striker, the Green Falcons will hope for the same again from Al Abed in the final two fixtures.
Omar Abdulrahman, United Arab Emirates
Widely seen as one of the most gifted players of his generation across the Asian game, 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman has proven himself time and again to be a master at dictating the pace of the game and opening opposing defences with his range of passing.
Abdulrahman has attracted attention from clubs across Europe but has opted – so far – to remain with Al Ain in the UAE, where he has won three domestic league titles.
Chanathip Songkrasin, Thailand
Thai football fans have christened their young star ‘Jay Messi’, a nod to the impact the diminutive playmaker has had since breaking into the national team as a 19-year-old.
With dazzling feet and an eye for goal, Chanathip Songkrasin has won individual honours in both the Thai Premier League and the AFF Championship. The midfielder recently joined Japan’s Consadole Sapporo from Muangthong United.
Mohanad Abdulraheem, Iraq
A star talent at youth level, winning the 2012 AFC Youth Player of the Year, Mohanad Abdulraheem has continued his upward rise and was leading scorer in the final phase of World Cup qualifiers played in 2016.
Although four of his five goals came in Iraq’s stunning 4-0 thrashing of Thailand, the gaping hole left by Younis Mahmoud’s retirement looks to have become less of an issue with the emergence of the prodigious 23-year-old.
Photos: Lagardère Sports