Asian fans will be treated to a remarkable matchday of football as the much-anticipated second round of qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ kicks off on Thursday. Twenty-eight of the continent's top 40 sides do battle with a series of higher ranked teams sitting out the openers.
Enticing match-ups are, however, in no shortage with a host of minnows out to challenge the big boys. Inspired by their history-making success in the first round, Bhutan travel to Hong Kong targeting a further breakthrough. The same can be said of Cambodia, who entertain regional giants Singapore while Yemen face the formidable Korea DPR at home. Maldives and Lebanon, meanwhile, have hard assignments in 2015 AFC Asian Cup participants Qatar and Kuwait respectively.
*Lebanon-Kuwait, Saida International Stadium, Sidon *
With the top-ranked sides not in action, this Group G match looks set to draw a lot of attention as it features a 2015 AFC Asian Cup team and the surprise packages in Brazil 2014 qualifying. Former Asian champions Kuwait remain a force to be reckoned with despite their failure to progress beyond the group phase at Australia 2015.
However, they face Lebanon who are remembered for stealing the show in the last qualifying campaign, storming all the way through to the final round for the first time. Roda Antar remains the hosts' captain as the Lebanese aim to emulate their past feats. Spearheading the attacking-line is none other than Hassan Maatouk, who completed a brace as they drew the Kuwaitis 2-2 last time out.
The visitors can, however, draw inspiration from their dominant head-to-head record with 13 wins to 5, including prevailing in both legs in qualifying for France 1998.
The other attractions
Group A's Saudi Arabia are all too aware that they have a good chance of topping the section with a home victory against Palestine with United Arab Emirates not in action. This is the only match in the opening matchday which features a pair of 2015 AFC Asian Cup participants. Hosts Saudi Arabia enter the first leg with a clear mental edge, having won two and drawn one previously. But the four-time FIFA World Cup campaigners will write off the rivals at their peril considering the resilience Palestine have previously shown.
With Group B's top seeds Australia sitting this matchday out, Jordan are hopeful of making a positive start in Tajikistan. The Jordanians have gone five matches without a win in the first half of this year, but can take heart from their qualifying victory against Uzbekistan, arguably the strongest side in central Asia, on the road to Brazil 2014.
With China PR not playing, Group C's other genuine contenders Qatar aim to get off to a winning start against hosts Maldives in the two sides' first meeting. Having eliminated Sri Lanka in unexpected fashion, Bhutan are set to scale new heights when they line up against hosts Hong Kong, a side against against whom they have never played.
Group D's top match pits hosts India against Oman, with both sides keen on setting the tone in the section in the absence of top seeds Iran. Despite losing 2-1 to Syria in a recent warm-up, the Omanis remain a formidable rival for the hosts with a proud undefeated record.
Familiar foes meet again in Group E as Cambodia entertain Singapore. The visitors are big favourites, having won 11 of their past 14 meetings. However, the hosts can look to their current form on the back of a 1-0 friendly win against Myanmar. In the group's other match, hosts Afghanistan and Syria are no strangers, either, having crossed paths on the road to South Africa 2010.
*Group H *contenders Bahrain and Korea DPR face trips to the Philippines and Yemen respectively. Despite their status as 2015 AFC Asian Cup finalists, both teams know that they can't afford any slip-ups in the openers if they are to contend for the section's top-place against Uzbekistan.
Player to watch
Lebanon's Roda Antar stands out among a host of veterans featuring in the opening matchday. The 35-year-old has figured in qualifying for the past four FIFA World Cups with the Kuwait match marking his 18th qualifier. Adding to his vast experiences is the consistent form of the China PR-based midfielder, who maintains high performances level for both club and country.
Did you know?
The second round also serves as the qualifier for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.
What they said
"People say this is the hardest group. But after all, we are not drawn together with the likes of Australia, Japan and Korea Republic. Our goal is second place. It is hard, but anything is possible," Philippines coach Thomas Dooley
Matchday 1 fixtures
Thursday 11 June
Group A: Malaysia-Timor-Leste, Saudi Arabia- Palestine
Group B: Bangladesh-Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan-Jordan
Group C: Hong Kong-Bhutan, Maldives-Qatar
Group D: Guam-Turkmenistan, India-Oman
Group E: Cambodia-Singapore, Afghanistan-Syria
Group G: Laos-Myanmar, Lebanon-Kuwait
Group H: Philippines-Bahrain, Yemen-Korea DPR
*All matches involving Indonesia have been cancelled as a result of the suspension of their Football Association.