Having gone so close to booking a place at the FIFA World Cup™ on more than one occasion, Uzbekistan commence Asia's final qualifying round for Brazil 2014 next month hunting a breakthrough. Along with Iran, the landlocked Central Asians are one of only four teams in the remaining ten to have reached the final stage of qualifying on each occasion since 1998. Now, under wily coach Vadim Abramov, Uzbekistan have firmly fixed their sights on sealing their first-ever qualification for the global showpiece.
"We are clear that there will be more difficult games in the final stage as the teams we are facing are stronger," Abramov told FIFA.com. "But we have shown that we are capable of competing against any rivals so we are confident that we can go to Brazil 2014."
Indeed, the White Wolves have emerged a different team under the 59-year-old former Locomotive Tashkent coach since he took over in the wake of their failed campaign for South Africa 2010. The former Soviet republic enjoyed their best continental showing since winning gold at the 1994 Asian Games by storming into the last four at the 2011 AFC Asian Cup in Qatar. It has been a positive period for Uzbekistan as they went on to edge Asian champions Japan in the most recent 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying round to advance as group winners.
And, at least on surface, Abramov's side received a kind draw which saw them avoid Japan, and also Australia, against whom they conceded six unanswered goals in the Asian Cup semi-finals last year. While their chances looked very much boosted in the eyes of the Uzbek fans, the coach is all too aware there are no easy games in FIFA World Cup qualifying.
"Our group is as difficult as the other one," said the experienced Abramov, who was national team assistant coach for a four-year period up to 2008. "Korea Republic are the undisputed favourites as they have qualified for every World Cup since 1986. Qatar and Iran are also very strong while Lebanon are a team that cannot be underestimated.”
Uzbekistan opens their campaign against Iran on 3 June, before travelling to Beirut to take on Lebanon five days later. “The first game is important for each team,” said Abramov. “Iran are a good team but we can take heart from our good performance during the past phase. We have never played against Lebanon in the qualifying stage so we should prepare for them well.”
The closest Uzbekistan came to qualifying for a FIFA World Cup was on the road to Germany 2006 when they narrowly missed passage to an intercontinental play-off against Trinidad and Tobago after losing to Bahrain on away goals. For Abramov, the past lessons must be learned if they are to go a step further than has previously been the case.
"We should focus on our preparatory work so the team can maintain their consistency,” he said. “For the opening two games we will call our overseas-based players including the two defenders who are playing in the Chinese Super League (Anzur Ismailov and Kamoliddin Tajiev)."
Topping the overseas-based stars list, of course, are attackers Alexander Geynrikh and Maksim Shatskikh, plus play-maker Server Djeparov, all of whom who have figured prominently in their bid for the past two FIFA World Cups. "The experiences they have reaped on the international stage over all those years are valuable for the team. I hope they can continue their good form in the crucial final stage.”
With Uzbekistan narrowly failing to reach the 2012 Men’s Olympic Football Tournament, a host of young talents are emerging to complement the older heads, with striker Aleksandr Shadrin among the most notable. The 23-year-old scored the only goal as Uzbekistan stunned a full-strength Japan in their most recent Brazil 2014 qualifying match.
“Our young players performed well in the recent games,” says Abramov. “But we will choose the line-up depending only on form - no matter who you are, an emerging player or an established star. It is only the way we can maintain a competitive side to qualify from our group.”