Drama aplenty as the race to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Asia finally resumes

There are only 18 months left before the start of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

But the nations that will represent Asia is far from set after the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on the Asian Football Confederation's (AFC) qualification schedule.

The four rounds of Asian qualifiers were supposed to be completed by November 2021 with the inter-confederation playoffs scheduled for March 2022. With the tournament now being extended until June 2022, the final team from Asia could qualify as late as just five months before the first-ever "winter" World Cup.

- AFC World Cup qualifying table
- Full fixtures and results

Eight group winners and four best runners-up are to advance from this phase of 39 teams after DPR Korea withdrew from the competition. Matches will now be held in centralised venues across the continent with12 teams receiving the bonus of a direct berth in the 2023 AFC Asian Cup in China.

As competitive international action returns to Asia this month, here are how things stand in each of the eight groups.

Group A: With China inconsistent, can the Azkals spring a surprise?

Syria are the team to beat in Group A and are one of the three teams that still maintain a perfect record in the qualifiers. They collected five wins from as many matches under Fajr Ibrahim in 2019 but will have a new manager in former Tunisia midfielder Nabil Maaloul as the competition resumes.

China PR, the biggest team in the pool, have had a slow start, with a 2-1 defeat to Syria in Nov. 2019 leading to the resignation of veteran coach Marcello Lippi. A 7-0 win over Guam on Sunday has gone some way in getting the Dragons back on track as they find themselves with ten points from five matches, three ahead of Philippines and five behind leaders Syria.

Meanwhile, Philippines have been a surprise package in the qualifiers, punching above their weight to hold China to a historic draw in their earlier meeting. Scott Cooper's Azkals will hope to get results against Guam and Maldives during the restart to stay in the qualification.

Group B: Socceroos in command but Jordan, Kuwait scrap for the spoils

Graham Arnold's Australia look to be in the driver's seat in Group B after winning all four of their matches in the qualifiers so far. Kuwait and Jordan, however, are both hot on their heels with ten points from five matches.

Arnold left out Shanghai Port's Aaron Mooy and Celtic's Tom Rogic for the restart but will hope his young Socceroos squad can get them over the line as they play four games in 12 days. With Kuwait and Jordan expected to fight for second place, all eyes will be on the heavyweight West Asian clash between the free-scoring hosts and Jordan slated for June 11.

Chinese Taipei are already out of the running for progression with no point from five matches, while Nepal's outlook looks bleak with only one win.

Group C: Iran at real risk of missing out on third successive World Cup

After putting on some of the most-memorable displays in recent years by an Asian nation in the main event, Iran's chances of making it to their third consecutive World Cup hang in the balance after a slow start to their qualification campaign.

Two wins from their opening engagements, including a 14-0 thrashing of Cambodia, meant Iran were expected to coast through the qualifiers. However, back-to-back defeats to Bahrain and Iraq have put their progress in jeopardy.

Iran are currently third in the group with six points and a game in hand -- five points behind Iraq, who top the group, and three behind second-placed Bahrain. Marc Wilmots has since left the manager job and it is Croatian coach Dragan Skocic who has the unenviable task of turning around Team Melli's fortunes in Bahrain next month.

Group D - Can underdogs Singapore continue their exploits?

The five teams in Group D will assemble at the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh with the hosts topping the standings with 11 points from five games. Uzbekistan are another team in the running for a place in the next round trailing the Green Falcons by two points.

But it has been the lowest-ranked Singapore, under Japanese coach Tatsuma Yoshida, who have caught the eye in the pool with seven points as they sit third ahead of Yemen by two points.

Still, the remainder of the campaign won't be easy riding for the Lions as they come up against a Palestine side, who are on a five-match winning run since their last qualification tie, followed by games against the impressive Uzbeks and the unbeaten Saudis.

Group E - It's all pretty straightforward for Qatar and Oman

As hosts of the 2022 World Cup, Qatar have automatically booked a place in the championship, but they still top Group E with 16 points from six matches. And if they maintain their position, it will mean that the fifth best second-placed team from the second round could also advance to the next stage.

However, Felix Sanchez Bas' Qatar will still have plenty of say in the group, especially when they take on Oman who are chasing them with 12 points from five outings.

Branko Ivankovic's Oman are currently the best second-place side in the tournament and will be confident of finishing off the job with Afghanistan, who are third with four points, and Bangladesh, who sit bottom with one point, their opponents after the crunch encounter against Qatar.

Group F - Japan a cut above, but Tajikistan, Kyrgyz Republic still battle

Japan lead the pack in this group with a perfect record after six matches -- putting 20 goals past Mongolia over two matches before most recently thrashing Myanmar 10-0.

That victory over Myanmar means the Japanese now have an unassailable eight-point lead, meaning Tajikistan and Kyrgyz Republic are now embroiled in a battle for the runners-up spot in Group F with the latter only three points behind with a game in hand.

Myanmar, who impressed under Antoine Hey, are not far behind with six points, but whether they will be able to rediscover that rich vein of form from almost two years on is an altogether different question.

Group G - ASEAN sides battle for supremacy, but don't rule out UAE

The ASEAN-heavy Group G is heading for an exciting conclusion with Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand occupying the first three places. Park Hang-seo's Vietnam lead the group with 11 points. Malaysia are second with nine points while Thailand have eight.

But do not count out Bert van Marwijk's United Arab Emirates, who are in fine form coming into the restart -- beating India 6-0 in March and Jordan 5-1 in May. They sit five points behind Vietnam with a game in hand. With striker Ali Mabkhout, who has 24 goals in the last 15 matches for club and country, they will to rekindle their third-round hopes playing at home.

Indonesia, the final Southeast Asian nation in the group, have been one of the biggest disappointments of the qualification tournament, as they are yet to open their account after five rounds.

Group H - Three-way battle to ensue as DPR Korea withdraw

Group H of the World Cup Qualifiers is now down to four teams after DPR Korea withdrew earlier this month. The North Koreans were level on points with Korea Republic and Lebanon and just one point behind leaders Turkmenistan, but have exited the qualification campaign citing difficulties rising due to the pandemic.

As a result, we will have three teams fighting for progression when the action resumes in South Korea on June 5.

Despite sitting second, hosts Korea Republic, under head coach Paulo Bento, will be favourites to advance and keep their hopes of a 10th consecutive appearance in the World Cup come November 2022 alive.