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Azkals face rocky path to Russia

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The road to Russia appears challenging for the Azkals. Tuesday evening’s draw at the AFC Headquarters in Kuala Lumpur determined the fate of the Filipinos. The Azkals dodged Asian Cup champions Australia and other big names such as Japan, Iran, and Korea Republic to name a few but were clustered with tough foes Uzbekistan, Bahrain, DPR Korea, and Yemen in the double round-robin qualifying round for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

The Philippines entered the draw ranked 139th, and more importantly the 18th best Asian team as of the latest FIFA Coca-Cola Football Rankings released last April 9. As a result, it placed them in Pot 3 of the 40-squad second qualifying stage. Other teams in Pot 3, all of whom will not face the Filipinos in this round, are the 2014 AFF Suzuki Cup champions Thailand, 2014 AFC Challenge Cup winners Palestine, Afghanistan, Maldives, Tajikistan, Lebanon, and India. Overall, there are five pots containing eight teams sorted according to the most recent published FIFA World Rankings in order to make the competition as balanced as possible.

The last time the Filipinos were involved in qualifying for the World Cup was four years ago, when they had to get past Sri Lanka, 5-1, on aggregate before falling on the wrong end of the same aggregate score against Kuwait, in a two-legged second qualifying round affair. Back then, there were five qualifying stages as compared to now’s four–including a playoff for an intercontinental qualifying round. On the continental level, the Azkals came a step short after losing narrowly to Palestine in the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup, which then presented the winners a slot in the Asian Cup held earlier this year in Australia.

Since forming its own team after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan has been one of Asia’s top teams having been constantly present in the final stages of World Cup qualifying, and a contender in previous editions of the Asian Cup. Bahrain is the last team the Filipinos faced and is also among the dark horses in recent times. The Bahrainis narrowly missed out on making it to South Africa five years ago when they were beaten by New Zealand in an intercontinental playoff game. Meanwhile, North Korea was among the 32 teams that competed in the 2010 edition of the World Cup. They also defeated the Filipinos 2-0 in the 2013 AFC Challenge Cup group stage. Yemen, despite struggling in recent years, is a unit the Azkals cannot afford to underestimate. The Philippines has gone head to head with two of the four teams in three occasions, getting a draw while losing two against North Korea and Bahrain. They will face Uzbekistan and Yemen for the first time when they clash in the group stage.

Qualifying will take place from June 11 of this year up to March 29, 2016 in eight home-and-away round-robin games. The winners of each eight groups will advance to the next round of FIFA World Cup Qualifiers together with the four best group runner-up. In addition, those 12 teams will automatically make it to the 2019 Asian Cup in UAE. The second qualifying round will probably remain competitive until the last match day as the next best 24 teams who will fall short of entering the next phase will make it to the last round of the 2019 Asian Cup; meaning that only the four worst teams out of 40 will go home immediately empty handed. Every point will matter to the Azkals, who are relishing the possibility of making it far as much as eagerly doing their best to stay away from falling way behind of the pack.

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