The strongest of the five former Soviet Republics to have joined the Asian Football Confederation, Uzbekistan will be keen to live up to the promise they showed in winning the 1994 Asian Games in their qualifying campaign for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
The central Asian side delivered a shock by clinching gold in the 1994 tournament as debutants, but since then they have failed to make an impact on the continental stage. That was until they stormed into the last eight of the 2004 AFC Asian Cup, where they were only edged out by Bahrain after a penalty shoot-out.
That morale-boosting performance was followed by an even more sensational victory over Iraq in the second qualifying round for Germany 2006, with goals from Maksim Shatskikh and Alexander Geynrikh sending them through to the last eight. Pitted against the likes of Saudi Arabia and Korea Republic in the final qualifying round, they managed a third-placed finish that set up a play-off against Bahrain, who once again advanced at their expense.
After sticking with a foreign-coach policy over three years, which saw German coach Hans Jurgen Gede, Englishman Bob Houghton and Russian Vladimir Nepomniatchi at the helm, Uzbekistan came full circle, turning to home-grown Rauf Ilileyev.
The former Uzbekistan Olympic team coach made radical changes to the team, keeping only eight veterans of the 2004 squad while injecting new blood in the shape of five Under-23 players. Despite missing a number of experienced figures, including influential former captain Mirdjalal Kasimov who retired last year, Ilileyev successfully moulded the new-look team into a strong squad.
Ace striker, Dynamo Kiev hotshot Maksim Shatskikh, is still in his goal-scoring prime and striking prodigy Geynrikh has come of age, developing into the team's lethal weapon particularly when sent on as a super-sub. In the central areas, Server Djeparov has taken over much of the creative duties since Kasimov retired while at the back young Aziz Ibragimov has quickly developed a solid defensive partnership alongside experienced Hayrulla Karimov and Aleksey Nikolaev.
Ilileyev's charges had their first real test in the 2007 AFC Asian Cup, when they crushed co-hosts Malaysia and China to storm into the knock-out stage, narrowly losing to Saudi Arabia 2-1 in an even contest.
In the third round of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup, however, Uzbekistan were imperious, advancing to the fourth round of Asian qualifying after only four matches with a perfect record, inlcuding a 3-0 thrashing of Saudi Arabia. Yet a bad beginning to the fourth qualifying round, including losses to Qatar and Australia, saw Ilileyev replaced by former national team captain Mirdjalal Kasimov, coach of Uzbek glamour club Bunyodkor.
The former Uzbekistan captain got his national coaching tenure off to a good start as his charges came away with a 1-1 draw against the strongly favoured Japanese. But their hopes were dented after a home defeat to nemesis Bahrain and, despite bouncing back with a 4-0 thrashing of Qatar, their lack of consistency saw them again lose out to hosts Australia 2-0.
The disheartening defeat, though, was not the end of their qualifying campaign. Even after losing to Japan 1-0 in the penultimate game, the Central Asians went into the closing match against Bahrain with hopes of a third-place spot. Needing an emphatic victory in Manama to keep their hopes alive, the former Soviet republic lost 1-0, a result which saw their opponents grab the third-place berth at their expense.