Federal Budget

Asian champions Qatar shift focus as World Cup preliminaries resume

Asian champions Qatar shift focus as World Cup preliminaries resume

Sports

Marquez Lopez as handed a contract until 2026 last month having taken the reins in December

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HONG KONG (Reuters) - Qatar will resume their quest for a first-ever qualification for the World Cup against Kuwait on Thursday with stability in the dugout but change on the pitch six weeks after retaining the Asian Cup on home soil.

Marquez Lopez, who led Qatar's successful defence of their continental title last month, was handed a contract until 2026 last month having taken the reins in December on an interim basis from Carlos Queiroz.

But while a familiar face will sit on the bench at the Jassim bin Hamad Stadium, there will be a new man wearing the armband after Hassan Al-Haydos announced his retirement from the international scene.

The 33-year-old captained the team to their Asian Cup successes in 2019 and last month, as well as in their disappointing showing as 2022 World Cup hosts, and leaves a creative void at the heart of the team.

Lopes has inherited a squad that sits on six points at the top of Group A after wins in their opening matches against Afghanistan and India, with the top two finishers in each group advancing to the next phase of the preliminaries.

Eight Asian nations are guaranteed to qualify for the finals with a ninth progressing to an intercontinental playoff.

Qatar hosted the 2022 World Cup but have never qualified for the finals, with Japan, South Korea, Australia, Iran and Saudi Arabia claiming the Asian berths at the most recent edition.

On Thursday, the Japanese face the first of two meetings with North Korea, playing in Tokyo before a tricky trip to Pyongyang on Tuesday for Hajime Moriyasu's side in their first internationals since underperforming at the Asian Cup.

Japan lead Group B with maximum points from two games with the North Koreans level on three points with Syria, who play Myanmar.

South Korea go into their meeting with Thailand under Hwang Sun-hong, the interim replacement for Juergen Klinsmann following the German's post-Asian Cup sacking.

Klinsmann's side were eliminated from the semi-finals of the continental championship following a bust-up involving captain Son Heung-min and Paris Saint-Germain's Lee Kang-in.

The Koreans lead Group C, also on six points, with the Thais and China three points adrift.

Iran are level on four points with Uzbekistan in Group E and host Turkmenistan in Tehran, with the Uzbeks travelling to take on Hong Kong.

Australia top Group I having secured maximum points ahead of their clash with Lebanon, while Palestine face Bangladesh in Kuwait City due to the ongoing Gaza-Israel conflict.

Group G leaders Saudi Arabia play second-placed Tajikistan with Roberto Mancini's side holding a two-point lead over the surprise Asian Cup quarter-finalists.