The “Korean Derby” might be the most eagerly awaited game in the second stage of Asian Zone qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, but before next month’s matchup North Korea must first navigate a potentially tricky opening fixture against Lebanon in Pyongyang today.
Forty teams are still active on the road to Qatar, but only the eight group winners and four best-placed teams progress to the next stage in which Asia’s four automatic places in Qatar 2022 are up for grabs.
With South Korea — scheduled to visit Pyongyang on Oct. 15 in a historic meeting between two countries technically at war — very much the favorite to finish first in Group H, every point is important for the other teams.
“We know that North Korea will be tough at home and have World Cup history, but we want to get a good start,” Lebanon coach Liviu Ciobotariu said. “In a group that also has South Korea, every game is vital.”
South Korea, looking for a 10th successive World Cup appearance, sit out the first round of games this week, as do all eight top-ranked teams in Asia, and kick off against Turkmenistan on Tuesday next week.
Also today, Turkmenistan take on Sri Lanka, the world’s 200th ranked team. Unlike South Korea, Sri Lanka are unlikely to progress to the next stage, but there is still much at stake.
After the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks in Colombo that left more than 250 dead, first-round opponents Macau refused to travel to Sri Lanka for the return leg of their first-round qualifier in June and forfeited the tie. Sri Lanka are eager to show that life has returned to normal.
Southeast Asia also has plenty to play for. The biggest crowd this week is likely to be in Jakarta as Indonesia take on rivals Malaysia in front of what is expected to be 80,000 fans.
Feelings between the two neighbors can run high. According to reports in Malaysia, Football Association of Malaysia president Hamidin Mohd Amin has requested that an armored personnel carrier be on standby.
Thailand host Vietnam in the same group, while Mongolia play their first-ever game in the second round of World Cup qualification against Myanmar.
Elsewhere, 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar are placed in Group E and kick off against Afghanistan. Regardless of how the Asian champions perform, they would not progress to the next stage of World Cup qualification. Qatar are involved as the path to the 2022 World Cup has been combined with qualification for the 2023 Asian Cup, which is to take place in China.
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