By Michael Church
HONG KONG (Reuters) - World Cup regulars Japan can become the first nation to seal their place in the third phase of Asian qualifying for Qatar 2022 on Friday as the continent's long-delayed preliminaries slowly come back to life.
Hajime Moriyasu's side face Myanmar in Chiba in a game originally scheduled to be played in March but which was postponed due to the turmoil in the Southeast Asian nation.
Only four matches have been played in the second round of the continent's qualifying competition since November 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but by June 15 the 12 qualifiers for the next phase will have been decided.
Japan lead Group F with maximum points from their opening five games and, with a five-point cushion over second-placed Tajikistan, can advance with a repeat of their victory over Myanmar from September 2019.
"We're focusing on the result of the first match against Myanmar," said Moriyasu. "Our objective is to win this match so we can advance to the next round."
While Japan's path is straightforward, several of Asia's leading football nations have more complicated routes to the next round.
China are eight points behind Group A leaders Syria, who have played a game more. China's game in hand will be played on Sunday when Li Tie's side face Guam.
China are unlikely to overhaul the leaders and instead find themselves in a battle for second with the Philippines.
Only the winners of the eight groups are sure to advance to the next phase of qualifying, where they will be joined by the four best runners-up.
Iran, who resume their campaign against Hong Kong on June 3, are struggling for form in Group C and sit third behind Iraq and Bahrain, while Saudi Arabia return to action against Yemen on June 5 with Uzbekistan breathing down their neck in Group D.
Australia will be confident of progressing as winners of Group B, with Graham Arnold's team holding a two-point advantage over Kuwait, who they meet on June 3, and Jordan having played one game fewer than the Middle Eastern duo.
There will be little separating Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates when an intriguing Group G restarts on June 3 in Dubai, while South Korea face Group H leaders Turkmenistan on June 5 seeking to overhaul a one-point deficit.
(Reporting by Michael Church, Editing by Peter Rutherford)