Despite being more than 3 years away, the qualification stage for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia will begin next week on March 12. 12 of the lowest-ranked teams in Asia (AFC) will start their campaign of qualifying for the world’s most prestigious single-sport event.
Fortunately enough, the Philippine Azkals were automatically drawn into the second round of the qualifiers being ranked in the top 34 teams in asia. (Rank 17).
Now, the term ‘lowest-ranked teams’ does not reflect the true nature of the upcoming fixtures. Let me enumerate the countries participating in the 1st Round of World Cup Qualifiers.
India vs Nepal
One thing is for sure in this match-up, no one is quite the heavy favorites. While India has been known as a football country for so long now, their steady decline in the past few years will have an impact against a Nepalese side which have improved quite well. Take for example the 2 Azkals friendlies against Nepal in the past year, yielding two 3-0 results in favor of the Azkals. The first result was a reflection of the weakness in defense and midfield of Nepal, but the second one was more of carelessness in the dying minutes. They have shown remarkable improvements in their offense as they use the flanks quite well, pushing the defense against the rope at times. This success may be able to pull Nepal up enough to defeat a mediocre Indian side.
Prediction: 2-1 (3/12/15), 1-0 (3/17/15) Agg. (2-2) Nepal advancing through away goals.
Yemen vs Pakistan
In a clash of David vs Goliath, Pakistan will surely feel the underdog status as they face Yemen, a much underestimated team in the middle east. The rankings may reflect otherwise, but Yemen has provided some respectable results, including draws with Asian Cup sides Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait. But considering political unrest in Yemen, making the home leg for Yemen to be done somewhere else, Pakistan may just have a touch of luck on their side for this one.
Predictions: 2-0 (3/12/15) 0-0 (3/17/15) Agg. (2-0) Yemen advances.
East Timor vs Mongolia
Timor Leste has shown Southeast Asia that they deserve some of the spotlight if their formidable showing in the AFF Suzuki Cup qualifiers are to be considered. Although failing to qualify to the main tourney, they have still shown a lot of promise. Against a Mongolian side which had little showings in the past years, Timor Leste may be on their way to the 2nd Round.
Prediction: 3-0 (3/12/15) 0-1 (3/17/15) Agg. (4-0) Timor Leste advances
Cambodia vs Macau
As a southeast asian, seeing Cambodia progress to the next round would be a good thing, and not an impossible thing, as they face a lowly ranked Macau side. But looking at previous results, this fixture may just prove to be one of the most unpredictable one. Cambodia, with the help of Laboravy, their ace striker, have what it takes to penetrate through the soft defense of Macau. The questions now is how the Cambodian defense will hold against the attacks of Macau. 2014 for Cambodia saw mediocre results during the AFF Suzuki Cup qualifiers, while Macau surprisingly drew with Singapore in a friendly. This says a lot with the capabilities of Macau, and the weakness of Cambodia. Only time will tell which team can go through.
Prediction: 3-2 (3/12/15) 2-2 (3/17/15) Agg. (5-4) Cambodia advances.
Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) vs. Brunei.
Fixture results have not been so friendly for Chinese Taipei, except from their surprising draw against DPR Korea last year. Aside from that, they have been defeated by Hong Kong, Guam and even Cambodia. Brunei on the other hand, has provided some spectacles during the Suzuki Cup Qualifiers, but not enough to win games. Their National team also just made their comeback after a fixture-less 2013. What must be taken as a positive from them is that they know how to score goals, only that they allow goals to go past their defense. This may just be the break Chinese Taipei has been waiting for.
Predictions: 3-0 (3/12/15) 0-2 (3/17/15) Agg. (5-0) Chinese Taipei advances.
Sri Lanka vs Bhutan
Both teams on this fixture have had their share of humiliating defeats in the recent past. While I am having a hard time pulling words out of my mouth to describe this fixture, I think it is noteworthy to say that Bhutan has not played any game for 2014, which brings a surprise when they opted to join the qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup. The same can not be said for the Sri Lankan team which has played several games in the recent years, including a win over Seychelles and a draw against Bangladesh. I also think they have a national league of their own, but I currently have no other information on that matter. That being said, one can easily say that Sri Lanka has a football foundation in their country which sadly does not reflect as success in their National Team. But against a lowly-experienced Bhutan side, they may have been drawn their luck this year.
Predictions: 5-0 (3/12/15) 0-3 (3/17/15) Agg. (8-0) Sri Lanka advances.
As for Philippine Football fans, April just can’t come any faster, as we await the draw for the 2nd Round of Asian Qualifiers. The road to the World Cup has started, and so does the preparations for our very own Azkals.
Stay tuned for other Football related news.