Uzbekistan arrived in the United Arab Emirates with the firm intention of improving on the run they enjoyed in their first FIFA U-17 World Cup appearance at Mexico 2011, where they reached the quarter-finals. And it is a case of so far so good for the White Wolves, who have reached the knockout phase for the second time in two attempts, an indication that they are now a force to be reckoned with in the junior category.
The Uzbeks’ opponents in the last eight are Honduras, who are breaking new ground themselves, having never won a match in the competition prior to their arrival in the UAE. Aware of the threat the Central Americans pose, Uzbekistan coach Dilshod Nuraliev believes his side will have to dig deep if they are to make it through to the quarter-finals again.
“Honduras are a very fine team with quick and skilful players,” he told FIFA.com. “We’ve watched their matches and we’ll watch them again so that we can find out what their movements and strategies are. If they’ve made it to the Round of 16, it’s because they’ve done things right so far. It won’t be an easy match and we’ll need to be at our very best to win. I want to see the team produce the same kind of performance they came up with in the group phase.”
Those views are echoed by defender Jamshid Boltaboev, who scored the goal that sealed victory for Uzbekistan in their final group game against Croatia and with it their place in the last 16. Sadly for him, however, he will miss Monday’s make-or-break tie through suspension. Sizing up the Honduran threat, he said: “They’re a tough side. We saw that for ourselves when they played UAE. They play good football, but we’ve got our strengths and we’re confident we can put on a good display.”
Uzbekistan had the best defensive record of all the teams in the group phase, conceding just one goal, a reflection of their well-thought-out tactics and solid organisation in all departments.
“We go out there with the aim of keeping a clean sheet,” explained their coach. “We know that if we can stop our opponents from scoring, then we’ll have a great chance of winning. Things have been working out for us up to now, and that’s why I congratulated the players after the Croatia match and told them I wanted them to carry on playing in the same way and with the same spirit.”
Giving his views on Uzbekistan’s tactical attributes, Boltaboev said: “We’re a well-drilled side that keeps its shape and bides its time when it comes to looking for goals,” said the defender, who plays for Uzbek super-club Pakhtakor Tashkent. “We know how to stay patient and I think that’s been one of our virtues.”
Even though he will be watching Monday’s game from the bench, Boltaboev has every faith in his colleagues. “I’m sure my team-mates will do a good job and that we’ll keep our run going,” he said. “We’re full of belief and I think we’ve got a great side, one that can go far in this competition. That’s what I’m dreaming about and so is everyone else.”
Having the last word, coach Nuraliev is a little more guarded about what the future holds for the young Uzbeks: “You can’t take anything for granted in football. All you can do is trust in the work you do and in your players. That’s what we rely on and that’s why we’re full of confidence.”