ZURICH: Only eight months after the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ concluded with Germany lifting the Trophy at the Maracana, the bid for the next global extravaganza at Russia 2018 takes centre stage with Asia’s qualifying first round kicking off on Thursday.

Six pairs of the continent’s lower ranked sides will battle over two legs, on 12 and 17 March, with the aggregate winners progressing to join the remaining 34 teams in the next stage. This phase also serves as the first round qualification for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. With so much at stake, the competition looks set to capture the imagination of football fans near and far.

** The official draw for the qualifying competition takes place in St Petersburg on July 25 **

Many eyes are on India, the highest ranked of the 12 sides as they welcome familiar regional rivals Nepal. A much-improved Pakistan travel to Doha to face Yemen seeking their first win against the west Asians in over three decades, while Cambodia entertain Macau hoping to build on their dominant record against the fellow southeast Asian side.

Elsewhere, Chinese Taipei face Brunei Darussalam on the back of their goalless draw against Korea DPR, and Sri Lanka are confident of maintaining their unblemished record against Bhutan. Mongolia, meanwhile, enter the unknown in the form of hosts Timor-Leste. FIFA.com previews these intriguing match-ups across Asia.

The match
India-Nepal, Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium, Guwahati, 15:30 local time

The two neighbouring countries have developed a marked rivalry over the past four-and-a-half decades, having met no less than 13 times. On the surface, coach Stephen Constantine’ hosts have boasted a clear mental edge with ten wins and two draws but the Englishman is aware that if they underestimate the rivals it will be at their own peril.

The visitors have, indeed, made fast progress since Jack Stefanowski took over three years ago. Under the Polish-born American tactician, Nepal notably edged India 2-1 on home soil for their only victory in the 2013 SAFF Championship.

The hosts will look to Sunil Chhetri, the team’s all-time leading scorer with 45 goals from 82 international appearances, to create the chances up front. Besides, Constantine’s intimate knowledge of his rivals gives the home team an added advantage, having coached Nepal from 1999 to 2001.

Nepal, for their part, can count on the striking partnership of Anil Gurung and Ju Manu Rai, both of whom were on target in their defeat of the Indians. Anything but a heavy loss will see the Gorkhalis boosted ahead of the return match.

The other attractions
Pakistan arrive in Doha to face Yemen with a score to settle, having lost both legs by big margins in their previous World Cup meetings on the road to USA 1994. Despite their disappointing record to date, the visitors emerge a different side this time around, reinforced by a squad with eight players plying their trade overseas.

Revenge is also on the minds of Brunei when they travel to Chinese Taipei, having conceded five unanswered goals in their previous meeting with their opponents in a friendly in 2009. The team will look to their DPMM FC stars, particularly a pair of brothers in Mohd and Adi Said who will shoulder the goal-scoring tasks.

If their recent 2-2 friendly draw against Singapore is anything to go by, it seems that Macau look set to turn the table in Cambodia, who lost to the Lions 4-2 in last year’s AFF Suzuki Cup. The hosts, coached by Korean Lee Taehoon, can draw inspiration from their proud record with three wins from four previous meetings.

Elsewhere, Sri Lanka look to make light work of Bhutan, the world’s lowest ranked side who have been the losers in all the past five encounters.

Player to watch
Three U-17 players are in Stefanowski’s squad with KRC Genk forward Bimal Magar the most notable youngster. The teenager became the youngest player in Nepalese history to score an international goal when he equalised in a 1-1 draw against Pakistan two years ago at the age of 15 years, eight months and eight days. Since then, he has lived up to his early promise, including striking four times as Nepal progressed to last year’s AFC U-16 Championship at the expense of Iraq.

Did you know?
India are the only team of the 12 contenders to have qualified for a FIFA World Cup. They were guaranteed a place at Brazil 1950 due to their qualifying opponents withdrawing from the competition. However, the Indians’ global dream did not materialise after their governing body decided not to go.

What they said
“We want to put the youth development in place and getting a good result in the qualifiers will generate more interest within the country. We have to be patient, we know success does not come overnight,” Brunei technical advisor Mike Wong

2018 FIFA World Cup Russia AFC Preliminary Competition
12 & 17 March:
India – Nepal
Yemen – Pakistan
Timor-Leste – Mongolia
Cambodia – Macau
Chinese Taipei – Brunei Darussalam
Sri Lanka – Bhutan

You can read 18 Frequently Asked Questions on the Russia 2018 preliminary competition in the related items