The lengthy Asian Zone qualifying campaign for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ begins tomorrow, with 16 of the continent’s lowest-ranked teams playing first round, first-leg ties. The second legs will unfold on 3 July.
These may be the continent’s developing footballing nations, but they are by no means lacking in motivation as they seek breakthrough on the international scene. The eight aggregate winners will advance to join 22 higher-ranked sides in the next stage.
And the upcoming match-ups are full of intrigue themselves. Bangladesh play host to Pakistan in an all-south Asian affair, while Laos resume their rivalry with Cambodia. The enigmatic Timor-Leste enter only their second Asian Zone qualification campaign and in west Asia, Afghanistan cross swords with Palestine in their first-ever meeting. FIFA.com sets the scene.
The two sides will kick off with an even head-to-head record, having won one of their previous two meetings apiece. Boosted by their recent qualification for the AFC Challenge Cup 2012, however, Philippines are expecting to go one better this time around. Sri Lanka, for their part, will look to capitalise upon home advantage and earn a cushion to carry into the return leg.
The visitors arrive in Colombo fully prepared, having spent the past month in a training camp in Germany. Besides, the Azkals can rely on their high-profile 12-man overseas-based contingent, with Fulham goalkeeper Neil Etheridge the most notable. "We are ready for the game," German coach Michael Weiss wrote on his Twitter account. "The team will enter Wednesday's game in good shape."
To counter the challenge, the hosts' coach Jang Yang called up a series of veterans to compliment the Brave Reds' emerging youngsters. Topping the list is captain Rohana Ruwanthilake, who has vowed to give the visitors a torrid time. "We are a talented side," said the Saunders SC defender. "Our main target is to make the best of the first leg on home soil."
The other major attractions
Boosted by their milestone success at last December's AFF Championship (ASEAN Football Federation), Malaysia are looking to translate their regional form on to the continental qualifying front when they welcome Chinese Taipei. The two sides are level in the head-to-head stakes, having won four and drawn three each, but it was the visitors who emerged victorious in their latest meeting, with a 3-2 home success in qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup 2000.
Having never lost against Pakistan on home soil, Bangladesh will be hoping that they can build on the record with victory in Dahka. Their opponents, captained by veteran goalkeeper Jaffar Khan and reinforced by an overseas-based quartet, will spare nothing to end their victory-drought away against the neighbours. "It is important to win the first leg," said Pakistan coach Tariq Lutfi. "The win will be a morale-booster for us ahead of the return match."
Home support is not, however, something that can be counted on by Afghanistan, who have to stage the first leg against Palestine on a neutral ground in the Tajikistani city of Tursunzade.
An opening triumph should be within Vietnam's grasp when they entertain Macau in Ho Chi Minh City. Taking centre stage in the region, however, is the south-east Asian derby between Cambodia and Laos at Phnom Penh, with the hosts' coach Lee Tae-Hoon expecting not only a good result but also a satisfying performance. "It is an important game but more important is how we play," he said.
Elsewhere, Timor-Leste will have to overcome not only Nepal but also the altitude of 1,350 metres above sea level at Kathmandu. The same can be said of Myanmar, who are expected to play at a similar height when they challenge Mongolia.
Player to watch
Mohd Safee Mohd Sali struck five times to finish as top scorer as Malaysia won the latest AFF Championship. The 27-year-old forward now has Chinese Taipei in his sights.
What they said
"I think the most important thing is that we have a fresh team and beat Macau through relentless attacking," Falko Goetz, Vietnam coach
Asian Zone qualifying, first round, first-leg fixtures: