By Michael Church
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Dushanbe's Central Republican Stadium will be the unlikely focal point for Asian football on Thursday as the region's qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup finals relaunch after almost 18 months of stasis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hosts Tajikistan face Mongolia in the Group F clash, the first World Cup preliminary held on Asian soil since the global health crisis wiped out the entire 2020 qualifying calendar.
Forty nations are participating in the second phase, which moved beyond its halfway point when teams last played in November 2019, but travel bans and quarantine measures mean all but three of the 32 games originally scheduled for March's international window have been pushed back until June.
Two of the matches going ahead feature Mongolia, who have been training in Turkey ahead of Thursday's meeting with Tajikistan and next week's trip to Japan, where they face the group leaders in a match originally scheduled for Ulaanbaatar.
The third game will see Saudi Arabia take on Palestine in Riyadh on March 30.
Quarantine regulations mean Mongolia have chosen to cede hosting rights to their final home game of the qualifiers to the Japanese, who are on the verge of advancing to the next round.
Winners of the eight groups in the second round are guaranteed to progress to the next phase of along with the four best runners-up.
Four Asian nations, in addition to hosts Qatar, will qualify for the 2022 finals while a possible fifth berth is available via an international playoff.
The second round of qualifying is scheduled to be completed by June 15 amid a flurry of rescheduled games that will be played in centralised hubs.
The 12-team third phase is slated to start in September.
(Reporting by Michael Church, Editing by Peter Rutherford)