Asia's 2018 FIFA World Cup™ hopefuls are waiting with bated breath to discover their opponents on the road to Russia as the second round draw of continental qualifying takes place on Tuesday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
While the event, which will be overseen by Head of FIFA World Cup and Olympic Qualifiers Gordon Savic, will be viewed with interest across the world's most populous continent and beyond, it is likely to draw extra attention considering the significantly changed competition format. For the first time, Asia's FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign also serves as qualification for the AFC Asian Cup.
The second round draw will see all 40 teams split into eight groups of five, with the eight group winners and four best second placed teams advancing to Asia's final FIFA World Cup qualifying round as well as the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. The competition lasts nine months commencing on 11 June and running until 29 March 2016, with each team playing home and away in a round-robin format across ten matchdays. The third round of Asia's Russia 2018 qualifiers is scheduled to commence in late 2016.
Despite the failure to progress at the first time of asking, the remaining 28 teams will compete for one of the remaining 12 places in the Asian finals in United Arab Emirates, which will be expanded to 24 contenders. Completing the tournament's qualifying contenders will be the next 16 highest ranked teams, with the remaining 12 sides battling it out in play-off matches to claim the last eight spots.
"This draw means a lot to not only AFC but also FIFA," AFC Executive Director of Competition Division Shin Mangil told FIFA.com speaking of the significance of the revamped format, "because the qualification this time serves as a double qualifier for both the World Cup and AFC Asian Cup. Under the new competition format, every side has an equal chance of meeting another team and playing a fair number of international matches within the frame of FIFA International match calendar."
With the atmosphere already running high across the continent, Mr Shin expressed hopes of a more successful and attracting qualifying campaign. "I believe this event will draw more fans and greater interest from the media than previously. Personally, I can’t wait to see this unfold and hope every football fan in Asia enjoys the exciting upcoming qualifiers."
Top eight seeds
As in qualification for Brazil 2014, the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking has been used to determine teams' seeding when fighting for a ticket to Russia 2018. In the first round draw in February, the global classification's January edition was taken into consideration with the 12 lowest ranked sides involved in the preliminary competition and the remaining 34 teams entering the second round with a bye.
The second round draw is, however, based on the latest world ranking of 9 April and as a result, there have been immense changes at the top of the ladder, with the likes of Australia, China PR and Iraq moving into the leading eight to join top ranked sides Iran, Japan, Korea Republic, Uzbekistan and United Arab Emirates on the back of their excellent performances in the AFC Asian Cup and international friendlies.
Boosted by their milestone success in January's AFC Asian Cup on home soil, Australia coach Ange Postecoglou voiced his ambitions looking ahead to Tuesday's draw. "We want to qualify (for the World Cup)," said the 49-year-old Socceroos boss, whose side recently drew 2-2 against reigning world champions Germany. "We want to go there and do some damage, scare a few countries and try and win the thing. That might sound ridiculous sitting here right now, but that should be our goal, to try and win the World Cup."
Having taken his side to the last eight in the aforementioned Asian finals, China PR coach Alain Perrin is optimistic to the forthcoming qualifying campaign. "(It is good) we have secured a place in the top eight seeds," said the Frenchman. "Now we are in a new phase of build-up as we prepare for qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia."
"We disappointed our compatriots in the recent Asian Cup," Uzbekistan coach Mirdjalal Kasimov remarked looking forward to the second round. "We were looking to progress further but we were eliminated in the quarter-finals. Thus, we want to come up with better outcomes in the World Cup qualifying to please our supporters."