The 2026 FIFA World Cup may still be just under three years away but -- in Asia -- the quest to reach football's most-prestigious tournament is already underway.
Over the past five days, the Asian qualifiers for the World Cup, which are in conjunction with the process to get to the 2027 AFC Asian Cup, kicked off as the first round saw 20 teams face off in a home-and-away knockout format.
Sitting 25 spots above their opponents at 158th in the FIFA world rankings, Afghanistan were favourites to see off Mongolia and did just that -- even if the manner in which they achieved the victory was not as convincing as they would have liked.
A narrow 1-0 first-leg win was followed with the exact same result in the return encounter in Ulaanbaatar on Tuesday, with both winners coming in the second half as the Mongolians put up decent resistance.
Afghanistan now head into Group A in the second round and, although Qatar are the formidable standouts there, the other two teams in Kuwait and India could potentially be susceptible to the odd upset.
The clash between two South Asian hopefuls was evenly poised after a 1-1 draw in the opening encounter, but it was Bangladesh who prevailed over Maldives with a 2-1 home triumph in the second leg -- courtesy of Foysal Ahmed Fahim's pivotal strike just after the break.
The result was arguably not on the cards given Bangladesh's world ranking of 189th -- 34 spots below the team they vanquished.
Their prize for progressing is a spot in Group I, where they will face tough tests against Australia, Palestine and Lebanon -- who are all among the leading 24 nations which will be competing at next year's Asian Cup.
They set themselves up nicely with an opening 4-0 win on Friday before completing the job on Tuesday, benefitting from the fact that both legs were played on home soil in Kaohsiung due to the Timorese's home venue failing to meet FIFA standards.
Nonetheless, it was not without cause for concern as they followed up an emphatic 4-0 first-leg victory with a shock 2-0 loss to the 184th-ranked Bhutanese, who were hardly expected to cause any real problems for their opponents sitting 36 places above them.
The two teams are frequent foes given their geographical proximity and regular meetings in the AFF Championship and Southeast Asian Games and it was Garuda who capitalised on this familiarity, with a host of star names such as Egy Maulana, Witan Sulaeman and Ramadhan Sananta getting in on the act.
And while they will technically be the lowest-ranked team in Group F, Indonesia have reason the be optimistic given they will be up against Iraq -- formidable opposition but by no means one of the continent's leading lights -- and neighbours Vietnam and Philippines, with the Southeast Asian teams all capable of getting one over the other depending on the day.
It has been a long time since Myanmar were among the best in Asia but they did feature in the Olympic Games back in 1972, four years after finishing runners-up in the fourth edition of the Asian Cup.
They have however ensured they will at least be present in the second round of World Cup qualifying in Asia after cruising to a 5-1 aggregate win over Macau, with all the goals coming in the opening encounter in Yangon.
Things will get tougher in the near future as their place in Group B will pit them against Japan and Syria, who were both among the 12 teams that reached the third round of the Asian qualifiers last time out, as well as a North Korea side who are traditionally competitive but have not played a senior international since 2019.
Nonetheless, the Nepalese were able to pull level and force a draw in that game, before Manish Dangi's 53rd-minute effort on Tuesday was enough to seal a 2-1 aggregate victory.
While Group H does not look like one of the tougher tests in the second round, Nepal are still likely to find the going tough against a trio of West Asian opponents in United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Yemen.
In what proved to be one of the more keenly-contested affairs, Pakistan pulled off the upset of the first round as they saw off Cambodia, who will not be contesting the next stage for the first time since 2014.
The Cambodians will rue their failure to make the most of their home advantage in a 0-0 first-leg draw, which allowed the Pakistanis to pull off a smash-and-grab as Harun Hamid scored the only goal of the return encounter for a 1-0 aggregate win.
On to Group G in the next round, Saudi Arabia are the team Pakistan should fear the most, although they are also unlikely to enjoy much joy against Jordan and Tajikistan, who are both competing at next year's Asian Cup.
But after a 2-1 first-leg triumph which really should have produced a bigger winning margin, the Lions were able to make sure of their progress courtesy of a late Shawal Anuar strike for a 1-0 win on Tuesday.
The reality is that Singapore will find it near impossible to get out of Group C, but they will have some tantalising ties to look forward to -- and test themselves in -- against South Korea, China and regular rivals Thailand.
Completing the ten teams that have advanced from the opening stage of Asian qualifiers is Yemen, who were always expected to cruise through given they were up against the continent's bottom team in 202nd-ranked Sri Lanka.
While the opening affair was a comfortable enough 3-0 victory, the Yemeni did raise a few eyebrows as they were held to a 1-1 draw in Tuesday's second leg.
For a team that did well enough to qualify for the last Asian Cup, Yemen could perhaps be thinking they are in with a chance in Group H given they will be up against familiar regional opposition in UAE and Bahrain, as well as a Nepal outfit they will be expected to brush aside.