Spain triumphed 1-0 over Uzbekistan and booked their place among the last 16 at the FIFA World Youth Championship UAE 2003 courtesy of a peach of a goal by an inspired Andrés Iniesta. The closing Group B game at the Sharjah Stadium proved to be the curtain call for the admirable Asians in their first-ever campaign in the tournament.
The Spanish side moved in time to the rhythm set by Iniesta, who ran the show in a midfield that had its mind fixed firmly on the job in hand during the first 45 minutes. The first chance of the evening, however, was to go to the Asians: Alexander Geynrikh held the ball up nicely for Ilyas Zeytulayev to latch on to, only to see his shot fly just wide (6').
The first time the Iberians threatened the Uzbeks' goal they took the lead. Iniesta picked up possession outside the area and with defenders falling all about him, weaved his way towards the edge of the box. He flicked out a magnificent curling strike that edged just inside Ignatiy Nesterov's far post. The keeper's despairing dive only added to the beauty of the move (1-0; 15').
"It was a nice goal. I can honestly say I meant to put it there too, but there are plenty of other times when it doesn't come off," the goal hero confessed to FIFA.com after the game.
The lead came as a reward for the superiority displayed by José Ufarte's charges in all departments and Spain continued to monopolise the ball and the chances. However, they were looking a little lightweight in the opposition's box and failed to find the way to go further ahead.
avilán came close with a wicked volley that was rocket-bound for just inside Nesterov's left-hand post, but the keeper's superb reflex save, one of the best of the night in Sharjah, denied him (18').
There was a long interval before either side could generate any further danger near the opposition's goalmouth. On this occasion, it was substitute Nodirbek Quizboyev that showed sharp anticipation in the Spanish box and tried his luck with his head. The ball went behind under the watchful eye of Riesgo (42').
Iniesta popped up again to the steal the applause. The Spanish forward line held possession nicely until their FC Barcelona playmaker decided to step into the hole they had created. The talented number 8 controlled the incoming cross with his head and conjured up a cheeky lob over the advancing Uzbek keeper, but the ball fell innocently on the roof of the net (48').
Viktor Borisov's boys pushed forward and tried to make progress down the flanks. Although Riesgo was rarely troubled. The first real chance to level the tie came from Zrytulayev, who took advantage of a defensive error to send a left-footed strike wide across the goal (67'). Moments later, Mansurjon Saidov beat his man and put in a cross for Roostam Kadirov to head agonisingly near (69´).
Iniesta almost dealt the death blow again with a right-footed free-kick. The shot brushed past what for him was the wrong side of Nesterov's right-hand post (73').
With the final minutes ticking down, Ufarte decided it was time to bring Iniesta off, and with him went the fantasy, the velvet touch and the applause: "I think I'm getting more out of myself as the tournament goes on, but we all do our bit. The important thing is to keep qualifying and getting through the rounds," the player said after the game.
Spain's presence among the final 16 teams in the competition is assured. Uzbekistan, who almost got a late reward with a fierce Bakhriddin Vahobov shot (90'), will have the journey home to think about what might have been: "I'm proud of my team. My players did their best and deserved some more luck. Fortune is a decisive factor in football, but this time it didn't shine on us," Borisov was sorry to say.