|Palestine's Road to Russia and the UAE will be determined on April 14th|
After a series of home and away qualification matches the Asian Football Confederation has whittled down the number Asian countries participating in World Cup qualifying from 46 to 40.
The draw will be held in Kuala Lumpur on April 14th at 1700 local time.
Surviving the cull are India (2-0 winners over Nepal), Yemen (3-1 winners over Pakistan), Cambodia (4-1 winners over Macau), Chinese Taipei (2-1 winners over Brunei), and surprise packages Bhutan (2-1 winners over Sri Lanka) and Timor Leste (5-1 winners over Mongolia).
The vanquished nations will be left with a lot of time on their hands as the next qualifying matches they will play will be four years from now- in an attempt to qualify for the 2022 World Cup. As the AFC decided to merge World Cup and Asian Cup qualification- these countries have also suffered a premature exit from the first 24-team Asian Cup due to be held in the United Arab Emirates.
The remaining 40 teams have been placed into five pots based on the forthcoming April 2015 FIFA Ranking. The eight group winners and four best runners-up will progress to the Third Stage of World Cup qualifying and earn a berth at the 2019 Asian Cup.
As for the Asian Cup qualifying repechage, the four worst last place finishers in the group stage will be excluded with the remaining 24 teams fighting it out for the remaining 12 spots (six groups of four teams with the top two advancing seems the most plausible format).
Due to the recency effect of the FIFA Rankings, teams that participated in recent friendlies or qualifiers had a big effect on which pot they ended up in.
As Palestine didn't play a friendly in March they were condemned to Pot 3. With only 32 points separating Kuwait, the lowest ranked Pot 2 side, and Palestine; the scratched wins against Azerbaijan (2-0, Feb. 2012) and Malaysia (2-0, Mar. 2013) could have come in handy. All in all, though, the PFA is to blame for not organizing friendlies (or hiring a manager) during the March window. A place in Pot 2 could have boosted Palestine's chances at advancing to Round 3 and this has to be seen as a giant missed opportunity.
The Pots are as follows:
Korea Republic (56)
Australia (64 )
United Arab Emirates (68)
China PR (82)
Saudi Arabia (95)
Korea DPR (157)
Hong Kong (167)
Chinese Taipei (178)
Cambodia (178 )
With the exception of Pot 1, each pot has its peculiarities. I don't think Vietnam is a top 16 side in Asia and to see 2010 World Cup Finalist ranked below Timor-Leste is flat out bizarre. Here are some interesting potential groups Palestine could find themselves in:
Group of Death: Japan, Oman, Palestine, Korea DPR, Yemen
The gulf in talent between Palestine and Japan was clear at the 2015 Asian Cup and a arduous trip to the Far East would only make things tougher. Oman may not have had the best Asian Cup campaign but Paul Le Guen leads a steady ship and Oman's speed could unsettle Palestine. A winter game in Pyongyang would produce logistical and mental challenges- the Chollima are also capable of beating anyone in Asia on their day. Yemen conceded one goal at the 2014 Gulf Cup- their only loss coming to eventual champion Saudi Arabia.
Group of Political Paradox: Iran, Syria, Palestine, Korea DPR, Malaysia
Would any of these teams be willing to play in Palestine? Probably not, as to do so would mean dealing head-on with the Israeli military at the border and various check points in the West Bank. Would the AFC force Palestine to play the match somewhere else? Or would they dock points from the other teams for refusing to travel?
Frequent Flier Group: Australia, Vietnam, Palestine, Bhutan, Guam
For Palestine getting to any of these destinations would require a ton of travel time. With the team forced to use Amman's international airport they would first have to depart for Bangkok or a travel hub in Gulf before getting to any of these places. Vietnam and Australia would be easy in comparison to getting to Bhutan or Guam.
Neighborhood Group: Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Kyrgyzstan, Yemen
The furthest Palestine would have to travel in this group? 3500 km to Bishkek. The shortest trip would be about 100 km to Amman (although Israel's control of the border can make that a pretty arduous trip). Yemen and Iraq would most likely be based in easily accessible Doha and Dubai. For the sake of everyone involved I think we would all like to see Iraq and Jordan not play another drab 0-0 or 1-0 game.
Ideal Group: UAE, Vietnam, Palestine, Timor-Leste, Chinese Taipei
The travel would present a challenge but given the experience Palestine has playing away you couldn't ask for a better group. The toughest opponent plays in a country that's easy to get to, they have horrible fans who don't show up to games, but have a large Palestinian community who should come out to support the team. Vietnam is far away, but they are the weakest team in Pot 2 and Ahmad El-Hassan's coaching delivered a 3-1 win in Hanoi in Novmeber. Timor-Leste is stronger than Bhutan but logistically it should be easier to travel to. While Chinese Taipei struggled to get past Brunei and should be a straight forward three points for any competent Asian side.
Who would you like to play in World Cup/Asian Cup qualifying? Let us know in the comments below...