The unheralded players lighting up the Asian World Cup qualifiers

Junya Ito celebrates after scoring the winning goal in Japan's 1-0 victory over Vietnam in the third round of Asian qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup on Nov. 11, 2021. LUONG THAI LINH/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Star names like Son Heung-min, Takumi Minamino and Sardar Azmoun were always expected the light up the Asian qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Most have not disappointed. With the campaign now at its halfway mark, there is also a group of lesser-known players who have used the qualifiers as a platform to showcase their abilities.

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From South Korea's new midfield general to a Japanese livewire who is almost singlehandedly keeping his nation's hopes alive, we look at five players who have surprised and emerged as key figures for these Asian World Cup hopefuls.

Hwang In-beom (South Korea)

Hwang In-beom has taken an unconventional route in his career. He made his overseas debut in Major League Soccer by joining the Vancouver Whitecaps in 2019 before eventually moving to Europe when he signed for Russia's Rubin Kazan last summer.

The 25-year-old hardly looks out of place both in European club football, as well as a mainstay in South Korea's starting XI under Paulo Bento.

With his metronomic style of play, Hwang excels as his country's playmaker-in-chief alongside the defensive-minded Jung Woo-young doing the dirty work. Hwang has displayed more dimensions to his game than South Korea's previous midfield general Ki Sung-yueng -- as he showed with a superb solo goal in last month's 2-1 win over Syria.

Junya Ito (Japan)

While Japan boast no shortage of players starring in Europe's biggest leagues, the player that has stood out the most for the Samurai Blue in an inconsistent campaign far is an unexpected one.

Currently featuring for Genk in Belgium's top flight, Junya Ito's continued selection under coach Hajime Moriyasu may have initially raised a few eyebrows while others such as Daichi Kamada, Takuma Asano and Kyogo Furuhashi sit on the bench. Ito he has silenced any doubters at the same speed in which he tears down the wing.

Ito bagged the only goal of the game on Thursday to hand the Japanese an important 1-0 win over Vietnam, and regularly looks their likeliest avenue to goals with more-famous names like Minamino and Yuya Osako continuing to struggle.

Salman Al-Faraj (Saudi Arabia)

Unlike Hwang and Ito, Salman Al-Faraj is already established as his nation's standout player. Despite being regarded as one of Asia's best playmakers, he has spent his entire career in his native Saudi Arabia with Al Hilal.

Al-Faraj has a rather handsome trophy cabinet with six Saudi Professional League titles and an AFC Champions League crown to his name, and is equally capable of carving apart defences with a mazy dribble as he is with an incisive through-pass. Boasting all the hallmarks that should have easily seen him become one of Asian football's many 100-cap players, the midfielder has surprisingly only made 64 international appearances.

At 32, Al-Faraj has probably missed the chance to ply his trade in Europe but next year's World Cup could be the final opportunity for him to showcase his qualities on the biggest of stages.

Vahid Amiri (Iran)

One of Iran's key strengths is the versatility of the players at coach Dragan Skocic's disposal, and few are better than Vahid Amiri.

Throughout the qualifying campaign so far, Amiri has alternated between being deployed as a left-back and left winger and never fails to put in a solid shift. Remarkably, Amiri's recent appearances for club side Persepolis have even seen him playing up front as a support striker.

Barring a season in Turkey with Trabzonspor, the 33-year-old has been based in Iran for his entire career and, while he does not have the same stature as an Azmoun or Alireza Jahanbakhsh, is every bit an integral member of Iran's team.

Mathew Ryan (Australia)

It might seem peculiar to suggest Mathew Ryan as "unheralded" given a career that has seen him feature prominently in the Premier League and LaLiga.

Yet, considering Australia have received plenty of credit for their attacking displays in the World Cup qualifiers thus far -- as the joint-highest scoring team with eight goals from five matches -- the job that the players at the back do can often go unnoticed.

In Ryan, the Socceroos have an ever-dependable figure between the posts and, as he showed in Thursday's 0-0 draw with Saudi Arabia with a series of top-class saves, can often be the difference between defeat and a positive result.