India's road to 2018 Russia World Cup and the significance of the qualifier against Nepal

Utathya Nag
India have a tough road to qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia

India went on to win against Nepal in the first leg of round 1 of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium in Guwahati. The match, however, was just the first hurdle of many for this Indian side.

Predicting India’s road through to the finals, if it does happen, is an impossibility owing to the large number of variables associated with the draw but here we try to take a look and summarize the potential outcomes with the limited data available.

India’s match against Nepal was one of six first round qualifying matches to be played on the day with the return legs scheduled for later today. If anyone’s wondering why just six matches, here’s a summary of how the qualifiers from Asia are designed to work.

All 46 FIFA affiliated nations of the AFC have entered the qualification draw. To decide the first round matches, official FIFA rankings from January 2015 were used as those was the last published rankings prior to the first round draw.

AFC Rankings as of January 2015
Ranks 1-34 start qualifiers from Round 2
Rank Country
1 Iran
2 Japan
3 South Korea
4 Uzbekistan
5 United Arab Emirates
6 Qatar
7 Oman
8 Jordan
9 China
10 Australia
11 Saudi Arabia
12 Bahrain
13 Iraq
14 Palestine
15 Lebanon
16 Kuwait
17 Philippines
18 Maldives
19 Vietnam
20 Tajikistan
21 Myanmar
22 Afganistan
23 Thailand
24 Turkmenistan
25 North Korea
26 Syria
27 Kyrgyzstan
28 Malaysia
29 Hong Kong
30 Singapore
31 Indonesia
32 Laos
33 Guam
34 Bangladesh
Ranks 35-46 start qualifiers from Round 1
35 India
36 Sri Lanka
37 Yemen
38 Cambodia
39 Chinese Taipei
40 Timor-Leste
41 Nepal
42 Macau
43 Pakistan
44 Mongolia
45 Brunei
46 Bhutan

Now, how the selections work is that the 34 highest ranked teams from Asia receive an automatic ‘bye through’ to the second round, meaning they are to start their qualifying campaigns directly from the second round.

Round one of qualifying

The last 12 teams or teams ranked 35 to 46 are set to play home-and-away matches to determine who goes through. The draw for the first round was held on 10th February 2015 and the matchups are listed below.

2018 Russia World Cup Qualifiers – Round 1
India vs Nepal
Yemen vs Pakistan
Timor-Leste vs Mongolia
Cambodia vs Macau
Chinese Taipei vs Brunei
Sri Lanka vs Bhutan

After both legs are done, six teams that win outright on aggregate progress to the second round.

India’s chances: India and Nepal have met each other 14 times in the last three decades. India have traditionally enjoyed dominance over their northern neighbours winning nine, drawing two and losing two matches.

Stephen Constantine will take positives from what he saw in the first leg as he looks forward to the return leg in Kathmandu later today.

Round two of qualifying

In the second round, the six teams moving forward from the first round join the 34 higher ranked teams. The 40 teams will be divided into eight groups containing five teams each. The draw for the second round along with the allocation of groups will be held on 14 April 2015. Current FIFA rankings will be used for determining the draw.

The teams will play home and away round-robin matches. All the group winners and four of the runners-up with the best record will advance to the third round. Hence, 12 teams advance to the third round.

India’s chances: If India make it through to the second round, their chances from this stage are tough to predict. But as they would enter the round as one of the lower seeded teams, it’s likely that their group could contain one of the six top-seeded Asian teams - Iran, South Korea, Japan, Australia, UAE and Uzbekistan.

Round three of qualifying

The 12 teams will go on to play the third round and will be divided into two groups of 6 teams each to face each other in home-and-away round-robin matches. Two top teams from each group qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

If FIFA’s slot allocations allow, then the two third-placed teams go through to the fourth round.

Round four of qualifying (if required)

This round will depend on the allocation of the number of AFC teams in the 2018 World Cup. Four Asian countries qualify definitively. If the extra slot is allocated, the two third-placed teams play each other and the winner plays in the inter-confederation play-offs against other CONCACAF, CONMEBOL and OFC nations who make it to this stage.

The Asian Cup Angle

In 2014, the AFC Executive Committee ratified the proposal to merge the preliminary qualification rounds for the 2018 World Cup with the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. All the 12 teams qualifying from the second to the third round get an automatic entry to the 2019 Asian Cup to be held in United Arab Emirates.

The 24 next best teams will be competing for the remaining 12 places in the tournament. India must win against Nepal and progress to the second round for any chances of playing in the Asian Cup.

Also, note that the number of slots will go down to 11 if UAE don’t make it through to the third round as they will be retaining their automatic spot as hosts.

You can follow the 2nd leg vs Nepal at 3.15pm IST here.

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