In a thrilling encounter at the Dasharath Stadium in Kathmandu on Thursday, Anjan Bista emerged as Nepal's hero, scoring a pivotal goal that ensured a 1-1 draw against a spirited Laos side. This was during the first leg of the qualifiers for both the 2026 FIFA World Cup and the 2027 AFC Asian Cup.
Laos, considered the underdogs, took the lead in the 33rd minute with a goal from Bounphachan Bounkong. However, Bista's exceptional header in the 49th minute brought Nepal back into the game. This goal marked Bista's 13th international score, tying him with legends Hari Khadka and Nirajan Rayamajhi as Nepal's top goal scorers.
Despite the draw, Nepal's journey to the second round remains uncertain. The team's Italian head coach, Vincenzo Alberto Annese, faces mounting expectations as they prepare for the return leg in Vientiane on October 17. Annese's decision to reposition key players, including placing forward Ashish Chaudhary in defense, seemed to misfire, leading to a disjointed performance from Nepal.
Laos capitalized on Nepal's lack of synergy. A misjudged pass from Ghalan set up Bounkong's goal, where he skillfully navigated past defenders Ananta Tamang and Rohit Chand, catching goalkeeper Kiran Kumar Limbu off guard.
Annese's strategic changes post half-time, bringing in Dinesh Henjan, Arik Bista, and Utsav Rai, rejuvenated the team. Bista's equalizer came shortly after, a well-placed header following a corner kick.
While Nepal intensified their attack, seeking a lead, Laos nearly regained their advantage in a swift counterattack. However, a timely intervention by goalkeeper Limbu kept the scores level. Bista had another opportunity to put Nepal ahead in the 82nd minute, but Laos' goalkeeper Xaysavath thwarted his attempt.
Earlier in March, Nepal had managed a 2-1 victory over Laos during the Three Nations Cup final. The upcoming second leg in Vientiane promises to be a challenging affair for Nepal.
The first round of the Asia region qualification sees the 20 lowest-ranked teams vying for a spot. Victors will proceed to the second round, joining 26 other teams. Currently, Nepal stands at 175th, while Laos is at 187th in the FIFA rankings.