If preparation counts for anything, Uzbekistan's qualifying campaign will be back on track when they host Bahrain on 11 February in their fourth match in Asia's final round of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
With just a point from the opening three games, coach Mirdjalal Kasimov and his charges are left with little option but to claim the three points in this decisive game and keep their already-slim qualifying hopes alive.
"We still have a chance of qualifying for the World Cup," Alisher Nikimbaev, Administrator of Uzbekistan National Team, said in analyzing their group in a recent interview with FIFA.com. "We have a good chance to defeat Bahrain at Tashkent and a win will pull our campaign back on track."
Since winning gold at the 1994 Asian Games, Uzbekistan have made little impression on the continental stage, failing at the final stage of qualifying for the past three FIFA World Cups.
They advanced to the final qualifying round last year, only for history to repeat itself once again. Their campaign opened with a shock 3-0 loss at the hands of Qatar and was followed by a one-goal home defeat to Australia, results which left them heading for elimination after just two matches. The team went some way to recovering the campaign in the third outing against Japan with star striker Maksim Shatskikh on target in a tight contest, salvaging a precious away point for the Central Asians.
The Uzbeks have long been criticised for a lack of organisation and for entering major tournaments under-prepared. Yet the lessons of the past appear to have been heeded, with the team having embarked on lengthy training camps ahead of the Bahrain game.
"Our preparation began with an overseas camp in Israel from 18 to 29 December before we kicked off the next camp in Turkey from 5 to 18 January," Nikimbaev revealed. "Our third-phase preparation is staged in the United Arab Emirates where we will play our Asian Cup opening qualifier on 28 January against the hosts."
The continental qualifier will be used to serve their ultimate goal of qualifying for South Africa 2010. "We are in a three-team group also featuring Malaysia and with the top two teams qualifying for the next Asian Cup, we have easy qualifying tasks. The match against the UAE will thus provide us with a good chance to sharpen our form," explained Nikimbaev.
Still in the race
In Asia's qualifying campaign for Germany 2006, Uzbekistan locked horns with Bahrain in a play-off that ultimately saw the Gulf nation edge through courtesy of a single away goal. The upcoming rematch at Tashkent offers the Central Asians an opportunity to settle the score.
"We were narrowly defeated last time because we had played few competitive games in the run-up," Nikimbaev recalled. "That is why we have been trying our best to arrange more warm-ups for the team recently."
During the recent camps, Uzbekistan played in a number of friendlies against local teams, with several more matches scheduled ahead of facing Bahrain, including an international against Azerbaijan on 1 February.
Midfield maestro Server Djeparov, the reigning AFC Player of the Year, is in prolific form, scoring the equaliser against Spanish giants Barcelona for his club Bunyodkor in a recent friendly. "Djeparov is in good shape and he will be our lethal weapon against Bahrain," said Nikimbaev.
Finally, asked to rate their qualifying chances in general, Nikimbaev answered without hesitation that they remain firmly in the balance. "We have a 50 per cent chance," he said.