With one eye on UAE 2019, a tournament that has been expanded to accommodate 24 teams, and another on FIFA’s global extravaganza taking place in Russia, India, Sri Lanka, Yemen, Cambodia, Chinese Taipei, Timor Leste, Nepal, Macau, Pakistan, Mongolia, Brunei and Bhutan are all in action the 2018 FIFA World Cup and 2019 AFC Asian Cup Preliminary Joint Qualification Round 1.
The participants may represent the continent’s 12 lowest-ranked sides but there will be no lack of excitement and intensity as a number of regional rivals lock horns over two legs in the intriguing two-pronged campaign.
India, the highest-ranked of the participants, take on familiar foes Nepal with returning head coach Stephen Constantine facing his former employers at Guwahati’s Indira Gandhi Stadium in his first competitive match since returning to the nation he coached from 2002 to 2005.
“I’m humbled that they decided to bring me to India, there were quite a lot of names in for the job,” Constantine, who had a two-year spell managing Nepal prior to his first stint with the six-time SAFF Championship winners, told FIFA.com.
“I’m really very excited. There is a big difference in terms of organisation and facilities, they’re better than they were. I think the Indian Super League (ISL) has made a huge improvement to the marketing and everything else that revolves around football. I’m very excited to be back. We’ll do everything we can to get past this very difficult opponent.”
The 2018 FIFA World Cup and 2019 AFC Asian Cup Preliminary Joint Qualification Round 1 also sees another ‘South Asian derby’ with Sri Lanka taking on Bhutan, who are appearing in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers for the first time in their history.
“It is a momentous occasion,” Bhutan Football Federation president Ugyen Tsechup Dorji told BBC World Football.
“Sri Lanka is a team that is not way, way beyond the quality level of football that is being played in Bhutan. It will depend on that particular day, how our boys perform, and we are hopeful.”
South Asia’s fourth representatives Pakistan head West to face Yemen in Doha, with the Qatari capital serving as the home venue for the Yemenis while ASEAN sides Timor-Leste and Cambodia are at home for the first leg taking on Mongolia and Macau respectively. Chinese Taipei entertain Brunei to round off Thursday’s fixtures.
The six winners will advance to Round 2 where the 34 highest ranked teams await. The 40 nations will be drawn into eight groups of five teams and compete according to a double round robin format.
The Round 2 qualification matches will be held from June 11, 2015 to March 29, 2016.
The group winners and four best runners-up (total 12 teams) will advance to the 2019 Asian Cup finals and the final round of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
The next best 24 teams from the preliminary stage of the joint qualifiers will compete in a separate competition for the remaining slots (12 slots or 11 slots + 1 slot for the host) in the 24-team 2019 Asian Cup finals.
Source : Asian Football Confederation Website