Asia ready for first step on road to Russia

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The draw for the first round of 2018 FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers threw up some intriguing ties, as the 12 lowest-ranked Asian Football Confederation (AFC) teams discovered who they will face in their first step on the road to Russia.

The headline match sees India, the team ranked highest in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking of the 12 sides, take on Nepal. The game will mean a return to Nepal for India’s coach Stephen Constantine, who coached the *Gorkhalis *over a decade ago.

"I think it's going to be a very difficult draw for both teams," Constantine said, speaking exclusively to "India haven't done very well in the past few years, and Nepal have made good strides forward, so it will be difficult. At this point in time, there isn't a favourite, both teams are quite evenly matched and it will depend on who can make the home advantage count. We have the first leg at home, that's always nice. You know what you've got to do and when you go into the other game you know what you need to do to try and keep it."

Constantine has fond memories of Nepal, the Englishman was awarded a medal by the country's king for the work he did with the national team. But when it comes to a World Cup qualifier, friendships must be put to one side.

"Nepal has a very special place in my heart, we had a good two years there," Constantine recalled. "The recognition I received from his majesty [the late King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev] and everybody else was unbelievable. But this is business. I'm going back to win a game.

"It's an absolute must for India to win this game, and that's what we'll try and do. With Nepal you can expect that they will fight for every minute of every game, they don't know when to quit. We're going to need to be at our very best to beat a Nepal side, who will push and press you. Both games will be very difficult."

Everything now is geared towards this first game. We need to make sure we pick the right players and the right style of how we want to play.

Looking at the rest of the draw, Constantine picked out one other standout tie, which he thinks will be one to watch.

"I think Yemen against Pakistan will be a very lively game. Both are good sides in this region. You would expect Sri Lanka to get through against Bhutan, but I'm just looking at our own game at the moment!"

*Road to Russia begins now
Preparation for the first leg in India starts immediately for Constantine, with a training camp on 4 March in Guwahati before the crunch match a week later.

"Everything now is geared towards this first game. We need to make sure we pick the right players, in the right positions and the right style of how we want to play."

All the ties will be played over two legs, home and away, with the first match taking place on 12 March and the return game on 17 March. The winners will progress to Round 2 of AFC qualifying, joining the remaining 34 teams in the confederation.

The second round, which begins in June, will see eight groups of five teams play off in a round-robin format. The AFC World Cup qualifiers also double as a qualifying competition for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, with the eight group winners and four best runners-up progressing to the final round of 2018 World Cup qualifying, and securing an automatic place at the 2019 continental showpiece.

Those latter stages seem a long way off for the 12 teams drawn in Round 1, but every journey begins with a single step.

AFC 2018 World Cup / 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualifying Round 1*
Ties to be played Thursday 12 March & Tuesday 17 March:*
India v Nepal
Yemen v Pakistan
Timor-Leste v Mongolia
Cambodia v Macau
Chinese Taipei v Brunei Darussalam
Sri Lanka v Bhutan

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