Korea DPR are no easy opponent to deal with, particularly when they play at home in front of their fervent fans. On the road to the last FIFA World Cup™, the North Koreans remained undefeated at home as they edged past the likes of Saudi Arabia and Iran to seal a coveted place at South Africa 2010.
Their proud home record, however, does not faze Uzbekistan coach Vadim Abramov, who believes his side can come away with victory when they travel to Pyongyang next month, in Asia’s third qualifying round for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil.
"Our target is victory regardless of the rivals," the 58-year-old Uzbek told FIFA.com. "Korea DPR are a strong team full of experienced players and they represented the continent in the previous World Cup. But despite this we will try to defeat them and I think our players are capable of achieving this task."
Such a winning mentality is, according to the former Bunyodkor coach, something the team must possess if Uzbekistan are to be one of two teams to progress from a group that also features Japan and Tajikistan. "In the same stage of qualifying for South Africa 2010, only Saudi Arabia were capable of challenging us and we ended that stage by progressing alongside them,” said Abramov. “But this time it’s a three-way battle as both Japan and Korea DPR are strong. So we must do our utmost to claim maximum points.”
Stars swap roles
Abramov has overseen the changing of the guard during his one year in charge of Uzbekistan, with a series of veterans making way for youth talents. While the team's core remains the star players that featured prominently in their qualifying campaign for South Africa, there have been switches of roles with, most notably, Server Djeparov inheriting the captain's armband from Maksim Shatskikh.
"Djeparov has grown into a leading player of the team," Abramov remarked on the 28-year-old former AFC Player of the Year. "He is the team's playmaker and with the experiences he has reaped over recent years, he is capable of the skippering duties."
That said, the Ukrainian-based Shatskikh is still a key component for the national team in the eyes of Abramov. The Uzbekistan mentor is hoping the 33-year-old Arsenal Kyiv marksman can reproduce the kind of talismanic form which saw him finish the team's top-scorer with 8 goals during their previous qualifying attempt.
"We have plenty of options upfront with the likes of Alexander Geynrikh and Ulugbek Bakaev,” said Abramov. “However Shatskikh is the most experienced player of our team and he is still in his goal-scoring prime despite his age. We want him to go to Korea DPR together with us and particularly we hope he can help the team with his experience.”
Shatskikh netted the winner in the team's opening qualifier against Tajikistan, while Djeparov scored in the White Wolves’ 1-1 draw against Japan, thus vindicating Abramov’s faith in the experienced duo. The draw in Tashkent left Uzbekistan and Japan at the top of Group C, a point clear of Korea DPR.
But it was their home tie with the Japanese that left the Uzbek coach bemoaning the loss of crucial points. “We took the lead very early but Japan, as the reigning Asian champions, showed their experience by equalising in the second half, said Abramov. “Scoring first doesn’t mean you win the match, that is football.”
And Abramov says the lessons of the match against the Japanese must be heeded if they are to prevail in Pyongyang. “We must keep focusing on the match and fight throughout the 90 minutes,” he said. “The North Koreans are resilient and playing on home soil they can be even more stubborn and this requires us to be patient.”
Abramov made history in January’s AFC Asian Cup in Qatar as his charges stormed into the last four for the first time. Inspired by the unprecedented achievement, he has set his sights on their first-ever qualification for the global showpiece. “Of course our chief target is to go to Brazil 2014, but for the time being we have to concentrate on the group campaign and try to seal a place in the next stage,” said Abramov. “Although our group is among the toughest, we are confident to make it through.”