Two years ago, when Uzbekistan kicked off their FIFA U-17 World Cup campaign, there was one figure in particular conspicuous by his absence.
It is not to say that then-captain and playmaker Abbosbek Makhstaliev's suspension for the opening match was the cause of their 4-1 reverse against New Zealand in Mexico, but when the pair met for their first game at Turkey 2013, his impact was huge. Scoring the first and making the second, the creative midfielder was instrumental in the Asian side's impressive 3-0 victory in the teams' second-ever meeting.
There were six players in either squad who were present back in Torreon, but Makhstaliev was quick to emphasise there was no sense of unfinished business out on the field. “Having missed that game through suspension after being sent off in the qualifying rounds, it was nice to be able to play this time around,” he told FIFA.com.
“Was it good to win after losing last time? The most important thing for me is that we played well and got the win, and the fact I scored means I'm very happy with the day's work.”
His goal was hardly a thing of beauty, tapping in following a rebound, but his assist for Igor Sergeev's goal was superb. Carrying the ball towards the retreating New Zealand backline, he lifted his head and slid an inch-perfect through-ball, splitting the defence in two, with a casual flick of his right boot to pick out the striker's run.
He was hugely influential across midfield, tracking from left-wing to right, popping up in space and causing havoc for the Junior All Whites as Uzbekistan dominated throughout. When speaking to FIFA.com back in 2011, he said that “the most important thing is the team, not the achievements of individual players”, and it seems that he has not changed his tune in the past two years.
Asked to decide if he preferred scoring goals or making them, he was categorical in his choice. “The goal was obviously crucial to our side's win, but the most important thing in my mind is doing what is best for the team, so I prefer crosses and assists to scoring goals.”
That team ethic is there for a good reason, with almost half the squad forged in the academy at Pakhtakor in Tashkent, with only New Zealand's Captiol Football providing more players at the tournament.
“Pakhtakor forms the base of the national team in Uzbekistan,” the 19-year-old said. “We have a really strong academy there and it's great playing among so many of my team mates in the U-20 team.”
He was the team's talisman two years ago, scoring in all but one of their games on their way to the U-17 quarter-finals, but with the likes of Igor Sergeev up front and Diyorjon Turapov alongside him in midfield, this tournament also seems promising. Makhstaliev feels their opening result gives them every chance of replicating their 2011 run.
“We are very happy with the result, scoring three goals and not conceding, so we're very glad with how it turned out,” he said. “It's always important to win your first game, but it is now all about the Croatia match. With a win there we will be through.”
The potential of them going all the way in Mexico was seen as a fairytale. This time, while Uruguay and Croatia both look like formidable opponents in Group F, it's likely that with their little maestro in midfield, an Uzbekistan success story would be much less unexpected.