Despite high hopes Uzbekistan made the worst possible start to qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ after crashing to a 4-2 defeat away against Korea DPR in their opening fixture. The match, played in Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung Stadium in mid-June, marked their first defeat against the Chollima having won four and drawn two of the six previous meetings.
While the result came as one of the biggest surprises of the matchday, all the more unexpected was the manner in which the former Soviet republic lost. Having prevailed both home and way against the same opponents on the road to Brazil 2014, the Uzbeks entered the encounter as clear favourites. However, they were found four goals down inside 36 minutes and struggled throughout the contest against a side whom they most recently edged 1-0 in January's AFC Asian Cup.
"We were surprised by the turf," defender Anzur Ismailov told FIFA.com. "We had expected to play on natural grass, but it wasn’t and we were unprepared.” Uzbekistan defeated Korea DPR 1-0 four years ago when the match was staged in Pyongyang’s Yanggakdo Stadium.
This opening blow rang an early warning note to the Central Asians. "We are a strong side in Asia," added Ismailov, one of the team's most experienced campaigners with 68 international caps. "This current squad consists of good-quality overseas-based players as well as promising youngsters. We have come so close to World Cup qualification more than once. But we have been given little time training and playing together."
Captain Server Djeparov missed the opening game due to injury, and his absence perhaps proved another telling factor in their defeat. But with the two-time AFC Player of the Year winner's smooth recovery, Ismailov says his leadership will be important as they aim to bounce back in the next outing against Yemen at home in early September. "I spoke with him (Djeparov) recently on phone." Ismailov said of the midfield maestro who is plying his trade with K League side Ulsan Hyundai. "Obviously he is getting better and better. I think he will be fit to play the next match."
Young forward Igor Sergeev has proved one of the team's recent revelations, having scored the match-winning goal against Korea DPR in the aforementioned AFC Asian Cup encounter before pulling one back in the latest meeting in Pyongyang. "Sergeev is talented and he is working quite hard," he said of the 22-year-old Pakhtakor striker. "As a forward he has a strong left foot and is also dangerous with his heading. He can keep the ball, can dribble past the defenders and is generally a dangerous attacker."
The disappointing result left Uzbekistan's campaign in peril in a group which also features Bahrain, Yemen and the fast-progressing Philippines. It also cost coach Mirdjalal Kasimov his job with the Uzbek legend replaced by Samvel Babayan. While the 44-year-old is no stranger to Uzbek fans as part of the managerial team during the national team's 2004 AFC Asian Cup campaign and the qualifying for Germany 2006, he is particularly familiar with Ismailov having coached his former club Pakhtakor.
"I have known him since I was 18 when I joined Pakhtakor as a teenager and he (Babayan) was a club official," Ismailov spoke of the coach who recently guided the capital club to their tenth Uzbekistan league title in 2014 with an undefeated record. "He has the experience and expertise to rebuild the team. He called me recently and asked for my advice, and I said I am always ready to play for the national team.”
“Babayan is a hard-working coach. He can lift the spirit of the team and consolidate the players’ mentality. I am excited to see the new changes happen. This is possibly my last chance of qualifying for a World Cup and I will do my best to help my team. Under the new coach, I believe we can get our campaign back on track.”