Having reached Asia's final stage of qualifying for the past three FIFA World Cups™ only to stumble at the final hurdle, Uzbekistan have high expectations of breaking new ground on their fourth attempt.
Once again, the Central Asians stormed into the continent's final round of qualifying for South Africa 2010, under the tutelage of the home-grown Rauf Inileyev. But they were handed a tough draw, which has pitted them against top seeds Australia, three-time Asian champions Japan, Bahrain and Qatar.
Despite the challenges they are facing, however, the 1994 Asian Games gold medalists believe they can claim one of the group's two automatic qualifying places. "Australia and Japan are the two big favourites, and Bahrain and Qatar will be no easybeats," said team manager Vadim Abramov, who represented Uzbekistan at the draw ceremony on 27 June. "But we haven't come this far just to make up the numbers, and our goal is to qualify from this group alongside Australia."
The former Soviet republic has made little impression on the continental stage over the past decade, and they have gained a reputation for choking on big occasions against the continent's big boys. But those who have been following the Asian game closely of late will be aware of the great strides they have made.
Their upward trajectory culminated in early qualification for the last qualifying round this year. Inileyev's rampant side excelled throughout in their third round group, to book progression to the final round with two games to spare. En route to the last ten, they notched four straight wins, including a 3-0 thrashing of Saudi Arabia in their second outing.
That victory over the AFC Asian Cup runners-up gave them a real shot in the arm. "The emphatic win over the Saudis was a morale booster for us. It gave us the confidence to raise our game against the top teams," Abramov commented.
The next stage of the competition will mark Uzbekistan's first meeting with Australia, but Abramov believes that the Uzbeks will have no trouble adapting to the Socceroos' style.
"We are not afraid to face either Australia or Japan, because they play European-style football like us. We can arrange some friendlies against European sides to prepare for them."
Besides the unknown Australia, Uzbekistan will face a familiar opponent in Bahrain, who have proved to be one of their toughest rivals in recent years.
Their first meeting came in the quarter-finals of the 2004 AFC Asian Cup, where Bahrain prevailed in a penalty shootout. The two sides locked horns again in a qualifying playoff for Germany 2006, in which the men from the Gulf progressed to the playoff against Trinidad & Tobago at the Central Asians' expense. That defeat, as coach Inileyev pointed out, provided all the motivation his team needed for the games against Bahrain.
"It will be exciting to play Bahrain again in a World Cup qualifier," said the former Uzbekistan youth coach. "It goes without saying that the players will give their all against them, and I hope we will have the last laugh this time."
Uzbekistan's fixtures in Asia's qualifying final round:
6 September: Qatar-Uzbekistan
10 September: Uzbekistan-Australia
15 October: Japan-Uzbekistan
11 February 2009: Uzbekistan-Bahrain
28 March 2009: Uzbekistan-Qatar
1 April 2009: Australia-Uzbekistan
6 June 2009: Uzbekistan-Japan
17 June 2009: Bahrain-Uzbekistan