Uzbeks look to break new ground
© AFP

In their only previous appearance at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Uzbekistan failed to progress beyond the group stage, but after a promising qualification tournament the aspirations for the Central Asian nation are elevated this time around. Six years ago in the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan unearthed gems such as striker Alexander Geynrikh and goalkeeper Ignativ Nesterov, who have both developed into the country's brightest stars. However, coach Akhmad Ubaydullaev has set his sights beyond developing individual players when Egypt 2009 commences next month.

"We are aiming at reaching the last sixteen and only with this initial task accomplished can we think of achieving greater results," team manager Alisher Nikimbaev told FIFA.com in a recent exclusive interview. "Our tactic is to focus on teamwork so that everyone can push in the same direction."

Drawn into Group D alongside Ghana, Uruguay and England, the Uzbeks face a challenging task to progress beyond the group stage. "Ghana are offensively strong as the African champions and Uruguay can also be tough with their technical edge. England are definitely a side to be reckoned given their pedigree," Alisher stated. "It is a tall order for us to overcome such formidable sides to qualify and only a strong team spirit can carry us through."

Senior experience
Uzbekistan paraded a number of individual talents at last year's AFC U-19 Championship, where they were narrowly edged into the runners-up position by surprise-packets United Arab Emirates. Inspirational midfielder and captain Sherzodbek Karimov, who scored the only goal against seven-time Asian champions Korea Republic in the semi-final, was described by Alisher as ‘the key creative player' for the team.

Another important cog is Islom Tuhtahujaev, who proved to be the cornerstone in defense throughout the Uzbekistan campaign in Asian qualifying. The Neftchi man's talents didn't go unnoticed by the national senior coach Mirdjalal Kasimov, who called him into Uzbekistan's FIFA World Cup™ qualifying campaign alongside Karimov and midfielder Fozil Musaev. And it was Tuhtahujaev who stole the show at the senior level by securing a starting place in Uzbekistan's failed campaign this year with the midfield duo warming up the benches.

"Tuhtahujaev played a significant part in our World Cup bid and Karimov and Musaev also gained the necessary exposure to international competition. From experiences gleaned with the senior side, they will definitely be tasked with leading the youth team."

Solid preparation
Featuring in only their second appearance in a FIFA competition at all levels, Uzbekistan have spared little effort in the build-up, kicking off an eight-month preparation as early as January. Commencing preparations with a training camp at Doha, the team showed their abilities at the Qatar Youth Tournament with another runners-up finish.

They opened brightly with a solitary-goal win over Belarus before overcoming Malaysia 4-2. A 3-0 thrashing of the hosts set up a semi-final clash against Japan, where Uzbekistan scraped through with a 3-2 win. The final pitted them against Syria and despite dominating throughout, it was the resilient West Asians that ran out 1-0 winners.

"We have had a training camp every month since then so that the team can maintain fitness and form," says Alisher. This summer saw them move camp to Germany in June and Spain in July before switching to England in August. The team continued to make progress in training matches, including defeating the Chelsea reserve side 1-0 in their most recent friendly with Sanat Shikhov securing the only goal.