Uzbekistan open their Asian Zone third round qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ with an away fixture against Lebanon on 6 February, and the Central Asians will be out for redemption in Beirut. The Uzbeks' last appearance in the city was one to forget. It came in the AFC Asian Cup Lebanon 2000 and ended in the former Soviet republic suffering their heaviest defeat since gaining independence.
Indeed, following a 1-1 draw with Qatar, Uzbekistan were beaten 8-1 by Japan for the second-biggest loss in the competition's history. A 5-0 reverse by Saudi Arabia in their final outing saw the team crash out having conceded 14 goals in only three matches.
Uzbekistan are now hoping to erase their Beirut nightmare by triumphing in the Lebanese capital. And although their hosts are not on the level of traditional powers Japan and Saudi Arabia, coach Rauf Ilileyev knows that realising this goal is no small order.
"Lebanon are a well organised and strong team as they proved by progressing to the third round of the qualifying campaign (for South Africa 2010)," said Ilileyev, who previously coached the Uzbekistan U-23s before assuming charge of the senior side in 2006. "However, we will win the game as long as we perform properly."
Preparation the key
Inadequate preparation has, in the past, cost Uzbekistan in FIFA World Cup qualifying. It is something Ilileyev has been eager to address. He last week named a 25-player squad, which began its training camp on 24 January and will take on Mtz-Pipo of Belarus in the first of two friendlies on Thursday.
Despite these steps, Uzbekistan's hopes have not been helped by the absence of star player Alexander Geynrikh, who sealed a 3-0 win over China PR that sent them through to the knockout phase of last July's Asian Cup at the expense of their opponents. "Our Asian Cup hero is targeting on a move to Moscow Torpedo and coach Ilileyev decided that it would be better for him to complete the deal rather than spending time in the training camp," commented Alisher Nikimbaev, head of the national team's administration.
Ilileyev's appointment came following the retirement of an old generation of players, represented by the iconic Mirdjalal Kasimov, and top of his agenda is building a future for the side. Having spent much of his coaching years with at youth level, the 58-year-old proved the best candidate for the rebuilding process.
Under his guidance, Uzbekistan performed impressively at the Asian Cup 2006 and they went on to overwhelm Chinese Taipei in their Asian Zone second round tie for South Africa 2010, scoring an unanswered 11 goals over two legs.
With new faces such as winger Vagiz Galiullin, 20, and 21-year-old striker Farhod Tadjiyev, along with the recalled veteran Vyacheslav Ponomarev, Ilileyev is confident that Uzbekistan are moving in the right direction. That direction, Uzbekistan hope, is towards South Africa.