Asia's long road to the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015™ commences on Tuesday, with a record 16 sides featuring in the preliminaries for next March's 2014 AFC Women's Asian Cup in Japan, which serves as the qualifier for the global showpiece.
These hopefuls are divided into four groups, with only the section winners advancing to the continental finals, where they will join the hosts, defending champions Australia, China PR and Korea Republic. Last edition's runners-up Korea DPR are banned from Canada 2015 as a result of disciplinary action for adverse findings in anti-doping tests at Germany 2011.
The reward for progression to next year's Asian finals are indeed encouraging, with the top five finishers in the eight-side campaign guaranteed a place at the world extravaganza for the first time. Harbouring hopes of a place at not only Japan 2014, but also Canada 2015, these contenders will spare little effort during the group campaign which lasts from 21 May till 9 June.
Heavyweights take centre stage
The qualifying campaign features two more teams than the previous edition, a fact which reflects the fast development of the women's game in Asia. However, it is a series of traditional powers that look set to catch the most attention.
Having conquered Asia in 1977, 1979 and 1981, Chinese Taipei can take heart from their vast experience as they aim to progress from Group D. Posing the biggest threat for them are, however, a fast-developing Myanmar who won their previous encounter 5-2 as they booked qualification for the last Asian Cup at China 2010 at the islanders' expense.
Two-time Asian runners-up India can also spring a surprise in this section having won football gold at the past two South Asian Games. Even the enigmatic Palestine can't be underestimated considering their impressive 3-0 defeat of Iraq in the 2011 West Asian Women's Championship.
It is straightforward task for Group B's Thailand, arguably the best-credentialed side of the 16 nations that are lining up. The south-east Asians, who won the Asian title in 1983, are strongly-favoured against the likes of Philippines and hosts Bangladesh. However, they should keep wary of Iran, who stormed into the final in three of the past four West Asian Football Federation Championships.
Emerging sides seek progress
With those established sides targeting no less than qualification, the up-and-comers won't let slip the chance to seal their place among Asia's best. The hottest hopefuls are Vietnam from Group C, who have made it to the past six Asian Cup finals. Under Chinese coach Chen Yunfa, they edged both Myanmar and Thailand to clinch the 2012 AFF Women's Championship title.
Hong Kong, who picked up third place in the 1979 Asian Cup, are the most likely to mount a challenge in the section. However, it is Chen's outfits that boast a clear mental edge heading into the re-meeting having comfortably won the two previous matches. Hosts Bahrain, for their part, are hoping to continue their progress on the back of their bronze-medal performance during the past two West Asian Women's Championships.
Jordan, the undisputed pioneers of the women's game in west Asia, are confident of progressing to their first-ever Asian Cup finals from Group A. Having narrowly missed out on China 2010, the hosts and two-time west Asian champions begin their bid against Lebanon, before taking on Kuwait. Awaiting them in the concluding match are none other than Uzbekistan, whom they edged on goal difference in the preliminary round four years ago.
Players to watch
The qualifying phase provides fresh talents with a chance to emerge on the Asian scene. Topping the list are a trio of stars unearthed during the past AFF Women's Championship. Having struck seven times to finish tournament top-scorer as Vietnam won the title, 24-year-old forward Nguyen Thi Muon is expected to take qualifying by storm.
Myanmar's midfielder San San Maw was the regional campaign's second top-scorer with six and her goal-scoring form is key if her side are to upstage Chinese Taipei. Thailand, meanwhile, can look to Junpen Seesraum who was also on target six times in the aforementioned regional campaign.
Last but not least, Jordan's Stephanie Al Naber enters her second qualifying campaign shouldering her side’s goal-scoring tasks. The 25-year-old racked up eight goals, including netting four times in their 9-0 demolition of Maldives, as she finished second top-scorer behind Vietnam's Luu Ngoc Mai in their qualifying attempt four years ago.
2014 AFC Women's Asian Cup qualification groups:
Group A: Uzbekistan, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait
Group B: Thailand, Iran, Philippines, Bangladesh
Group C: Vietnam, Hong Kong, Kyrgyzstan, Bahrain
Group D: Myanmar, Chinese Taipei, Palestine, India