World Cup path becomes clearer for Harimau Malaya
The news will be officially confirmed when the latest FIFA rankings are released on Thursday, with 40 AFC nations going into five different pots based on their positions.
The qualifying campaign for 2018 Russia will also double as the qualifiers for the 2019 Asian Cup in UAE, which will be a 24-team tournament.
Ahead of the April 14th draw in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia are expected to drop further down the rankings from 153rd to 164th, their worst position in two years, following a recent 6-0 loss to Oman.
That puts Dollah Salleh’s men behind regional rivals Vietnam (125th), Philippines (139th), Thailand (142nd), Timor-Leste (152nd), Myanmar (158th), Indonesia (159th) and Singapore (162nd), and just ahead of Laos (178th), Cambodia (179th) and Brunei (183rd).
Iran (40th) remain top dogs in the AFC rankings, with Japan (50th), South Korea (57th) and Asian Champions Australia (63rd) hot on their heels.
Bhutan are the best movers this month, as they played their first ever international games and came out victorious twice over Sri Lanka, rising up the rankings to just ahead of Malaysia in 163rd place.
The first round of qualifying has been completed – where football minnows such as Nepal, Mongolia and Sri Lanka were eliminated – meaning the second round will see the remaining 40 nations battle it out.
The 40 countries will be seeded into five pots of eight nations based on the FIFA rankings, with each group to consist of one team from each pot.
The eight group winners and four best runners-up will qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup and through to the third round of qualifying, whereby the top two teams from each group will qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Interestingly, this stage will consist of 12 nations, with two groups of six – unlike the 10 which fought it out in recent World Cup qualifying campaigns in Asia – meaning an extra two games.
Expected Pots to be confirmed Thursday
Pot 1: Iran, Japan, Korea Republic, Australia, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, China PR, Iraq
Pot 2: Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Jordan, Bahrain, Vietnam, Syria, Kuwait
Pot 3: Afghanistan, Philippines, Palestine, Maldives, Thailand, Tajikistan, Lebanon, India
Pot 4: Timor-Leste, Kyrgyzstan, Korea DPR, Myanmar, Turkmenistan, Indonesia, Singapore, Bhutan
Pot 5: Malaysia, Hong Kong, Bangladesh, Yemen, Guam, Laos, Cambodia, Chinese Taipei