Having gone home empty-handed from their opening two final round matches against Qatar and Australia, Uzbekistan are determined to bounce back against Japan on Wednesday to keep their hopes alive.
The Japanese, of course, number among Asia's most formidable sides, and Ukbekistan's best result to date against the East Asians came when they held them to a 1-1 draw in Tashkent during qualifying for France 1998. Japan have won all four of the sides' other previous meetings, and in three of those encounters, they did so in emphatic style.
The two sides first crossed swords back in 1996, with the Japanese emerging as narrow 1-0 victors. That friendly win signaled the beginning of Japan's dominance over the Central Asians, who lost heavily in the sides' next two meetings, going down 4-0 in a group match at the 1996 AFC Asian Cup before losing out 6-3 during qualifying for France 1998.
Then came that 1-1 draw, suggesting - falsely, it transpired - that Uzbekistan had finally have got to grips with their heavyweight rivals. Those hopes were quickly demolished when Japan inflicted a bruising 8-1 defeat in a 2000 AFC Asian Cup group match, the tournament's biggest win and the Uzbeks' worst result to date in this fixture.
The sides have not met in the years since that day but the time in between has been spent wisely by Uzbekistan. From the depths of that embarrassing defeat, they embarked on a rebuilding process that was to bear its first fruits after only four years, when they reached the last eight of the 2004 AFC Asian Cup before storming into Asia's final stage of qualifying for Germany 2006.
That development campaign culminated this year, when Uzbekistan truly announced their arrival as a force to be reckoned with - at club and international level. The national team set the standard, cruising into Asia's last ten in qualifying for South Africa 2010 with resounding victories, including a 3-0 defeat of Saudi Arabia. At the club level, meanwhile, Uzbek outfit Bunyodkor (previously known as Kuruvchi) took the AFC Champions League by storm as they swept aside the likes of Al Ittihad, Sepahan and Saipa to reach the semi-finals.
However, just as Uzbekistan looked likely to live up to their early promise when they won gold in the 1994 Asian Games, the national team suffered two straight defeats in the final qualifying round for South Africa 2010. Yet despite these setbacks, Mirabror Usmanov, the president of the Uzbekistan Football Association, insists the team can still realise their FIFA World Cup dream. "We lost the two games but I think we can still manage to qualify," he told FIFA.com recently.
In order to achieve this goal, the national reins were handed to Mirdjalol Kasimov, who showed his coaching credentials by leading Bunyodkor on that remarkable journey to the continental semi-finals. Unsurprisingly, the former Uzbekistan captain's appointment received a warm reception from veterans such as Maksim Shatskikh. "Kasimov has a winning spirit and great mentoring skills," the Dynamo Kiev striker commented on his former team-mate. "I think the team will benefit from his appointment."
There are, of course, two sides to the story of this fixture. Certainly, while Uzbekistan can be expected to go all out for maximum points, their East Asian hosts are equally keen to continue their hegemony in this fixture.
"The Uzbekistan game is our second match and we must take it as a must-win," said Japan coach Takeshi Okada, whose team received a bye into the second round. "We need put the previous results against them behind us and focus on this match."