AFC World Cup qualifying review - the first round

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We have just trundled over the half way point of Asian World Cup qualifying, where the teams who played in their opening group matches, have just completed their return leg game. So we have decided to steal Johnny Duerden's idea where he reviewed a handful of the 'top Asian sides' performances. We have went next level, and decided to review the whole bastard lot. Hardcore!

The elimination round

The first round of qualifying in Asia is the most important of the lot. It is more important than the first round and the second round because a lot of the nations who are involved at this stage find it difficult to get friendlies, and they very rarely get the chance to play competitive games.

The reason they get very few competitive matches to play in, is because of the AFC's arrangement that World Cup qualifying also doubles up as Asian Cup qualifying. Therefore if you're dumped out of this round, there is a big chance you will also get booted out of the Asian Cup too. The sides who lose in this, will find themselves in another elimination round for the Asian Cup (if I have understood everything correctly).

There were 12 teams involved in this round, with the winners over two legs advancing to the second round group stage. The following teams took part in this round, Mongolia, Macau, Laos, Malaysia, Cambodia, Bhutan, Guam, Pakistan, Timor-Leste, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Brunei.

The draw was made, and the teams came out the pot, in a fixture order like this:

Mongolia vs Brunei
Macau vs Sri Lanka
Laos vs Bangladesh
Malaysia vs Timor-Leste
Cambodia vs Pakistan
Bhutan vs Guam

We will assess every teams performance who were eliminated at this stage. The teams in bold above won the tie and qualified for the second round. Their grades (as Asian countries are fond of grading teams like school homework) will be either an A, B, C or D.

Brunei - C

As far as I am aware, Brunei have never got further than 1st round qualifying. Being drawn against Mongolia was a brilliant opportunity for Brunei to change that fact. They had to travel to  Ulaanbaatar for the first leg, with both these sides finely matched, it was difficult to predict who would prevail in advancing to the second round.

Goals from Norjmoogiin Tsedenbal and Nyam-Osor Naranbold give Mongolia a 2-0 lead in the first leg, and put them in a strong position for the return tie back in Brunei. At this point it seemed like Brunei would have a mountain to climb, and found themselves falling out of the World Cup, as it seemed unlikely that they would be able to overcome a first leg 2-0 defeat.

However, in the return leg, Brunei raced into a 2-0 lead themselves and it looked like they had Mongolia on the ropes. Razimie Ramlli got those two early goals, and the stadium was rocking at this point. That mood evaporated in the second half, when Mongolia were awarded a penalty, which was duly converted by Norjmoogiin Tsedenbal and this vital spot kick put Mongolia in a 3-2 lead on aggregate, but vitally, give Mongolia an away goal. As Brunei scored none in Mongolia a week prior, this meant that Brunei would now need another two goals to navigate the tie and plonk themselves into the group stage. It really now was a road too far for Brunei and heads dropped. Mongolia found themselves in the group stages for the first time.

If not for their valiant effort in trying to overturn the first leg deficit, Brunei would have found themselves with the lowest score of a D. They have been upgraded to a C, because of that fighting spirit.

Macau - D

Macau's World Cup qualifying campaign began and ended in farce. Drawn to play Sri Lanka, Macau were another side who had a brilliant opportunity to get into the second round of World Cup qualifying for the first time in their history. 

But before a ball was even kicked, the first leg, which was supposed to be played in Macau, ended up being moved to Zhuhai Sports Centre Stadium, in Zhuhai. As far as my memory goes, I believe there were issues with the stadium in Macau. 

Despite moving the game, 900 and odd Macau fans still made it to the match, and it was a match Macau managed to win 1-0, to put one foot into the next round. Filipe Duarte was the fella who got the vital goal in that match.

If moving the match seemed like a farce, what was to follow for the return leg was a full on disaster for the Macau side fighting for their first chance to ever compete in a World Cup qualifying group stage.

The terrorist attacks had just happened in Sri Lanka, and the Macau FA said that they would refuse to travel to Sri Lanka for the match. They were insisting that if it wouldn't be played at a neutral venue, then they just won't show up.

There was outrage from the Macau fans and players alike, who were desperate to go to Macau and fight for their chance to make a name for themselves in the history of Macau football. However, that right was denied to them because of the Macau FA's refusal. A lot of protests against the FA took place after, with teams refusing to compete against each other in cup matches.

With Macau's refusal to travel, Sri Lanka were awarded a 3-0 victory and qualified for the next round without kicking a ball. The irony did cross my mind, of what would happen if Macau won the first leg 4-0 and then lost the second 3-0. That would have made a brilliant pub quiz question if it happened. Anyway it didn't and Macau were out. Not through losing matches, but because of their FA's refusal to travel.

Loads of rumours were flying about afterwards about the real reasons why this happened, you pick what you believe but here are the reasons we heard, Macau FA didn't want to pay the travel costs if the team actually managed to qualify for the next round or they couldn't get insurance for the players are two of the main reasons we heard.

Either way, Macau's campaign, if you can call it that, ended in a farcical shit show because of the FA. 

Laos - C

Laos vs Bangladesh was the closed fought tie out of the playoff round in my opinion. Only 1 goal separated the two sides over two legs. And I am aware the same could be said of Mongolia vs Brunei, but that match was a case of two sides who were strong at home, but not so on their travels.

Laos and Bangladesh were finely matched. Very finely! While watching these matches, I thought that they were going to tie and find their way being separated by a blast of penalties. That never happened in the end because even though Laos battled away in the second leg that took place in Dhaka, they couldn't find a way to score an away goal that would have levelled the tie. 

Robiul Hasan scored the only goal over two legs, this was scored during Bangladesh's surprise 1-0 victory in the New Laos National Stadium, based in Vientiane. Both of these sides deserved to find themselves in the second round, but because of how the AFC have the format set up, one of them had to lose out, and unfortunately for Laos, this time it was them. 

This was the type of match, where on another day, it could have easily been Bangladesh who found themselves the losing side.

Timor-Leste - D

One of the funniest statements I have seen so far came from the Timor-Leste manager Norio Tsukitate, that his side got an absolute hiding because he had to pick mostly youth team players. The reason for him picking youth team players might not be the reason you'd be expecting. 

He said the season in Timor-Leste had ended, and since then, most of his senior side had just been sat around the island boozing. Yes, he couldn't pick his senior side because they'd all be on the piss since the season ended. Now if that is not one of the funniest reasons you've heard for the coach not picking his players, then I would love to hear a better one.

Either way, even if he did have his senior players, Timor-Leste still wouldn't have found their way out of the playoff round because they got pulled out of the draw against the strongest side in this stage of qualifying - Malaysia. 

As Timor-Leste don't seem to either have the pitch to play a home and away leg, both legs were played out in Malaysia. Which the Malaysians won at a canter. The Malaysians running out 12-2 winners over two legs. Some would say that is perfect karma for Timor-Leste using a plethora of illegal players in 2018 World Cup qualifying when they knocked out Mongolia in the first round.  

Pakistan - D

Another country who have their own FA issues. Pakistan have two separate organisations claiming that they are in charge of the countries football. There is presumably a war of words between the two. 

Pakistan's home qualifier for this was played at a neutral venue because the FA that Fifa and the AFC deem to be the ones who are legally in control of the countries football, are not the FA that are in charge in the country. Something or other like this. If someone from Pakistan, or who follows Pakistani football would care to explain then please do get in touch. 

Pakistan got pulled out the pot with Keisuke Honda's Cambodia. They put in a good performance in my opinion but were clearly hindered by the shit going on behind the scenes with their FA. Cambodia ran out 4-1 winners on aggregate, and as expected, after being out of international football so long because of Fifa bans, it was too much to expect Pakistan to defeat a resurgent Honda-led Cambodia.

Bhutan - C

Bhutan were drawn out of the pot to face Guam. On first look at it, I thought because of Guam's performances in previous World Cup qualifying would mean they would get through this tie easy enough. However, Bhutan managed to win 1-0 in the first leg which give them something to hold onto when they travelled to Guam for the return fixture. 

Bhutan looked out of their depth though, and were resoundingly defeated 5-0 which meant Guam made it to the next round. The Bhutan manager said his side had struggled with heat, which was similar to Guam's manager saying his side struggled with the altitude in the first leg. Which got me thinking, that this was one of those fixtures that showed the world how diverse of a continent Asia actually is. Tiny Himalayan mountain nation vs Tropical American pacific island territory. That is quite diverse when it comes to fixture scheduling. 

The heat defeated the altitude in the battle of getting to the group stage, but Bhutan did well in winning one of the legs at least. 

Next we will be looking at the second round groups. Starting from group A and working our way through every single Asian nation involved in World Cup qualifying.

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