Pakhtakor return to Uzbek pinnacle
The 2012 Uzbek League season saw Pakhtakor restore their place as the country's top side, edging defending champions Bunyodkor to recapture the domestic laurels for a record ninth time. In what proved to be a tight title-race, the competition remained undecided until the closing round last Wednesday, with the Tashkent giants overpowering Bukhara 4-1 at home to seal a return to the top of the podium.
Leading Bunyodkor by two points heading into the decider, Pakhtakor broke the deadlock through a penalty by Stanislav Andreyev six minutes before the break. Top-scorer Temurkhuja Abdukholikov would double the lead on 69 minutes, before Vladimir Kozak completed a brace to leave Zhasur Khasanov's late goal no more than just a consolation as Murod Ismailov's home side seized the crown they had conceded to city rivals Bunyodkor in 2008.
"We had a very difficult season," said a relieved Ismailov. "But we defied all the odds to win the league thanks to the great efforts by all the players and officials. Indeed, I was not sure about our success until we led Bukhara 2-0, because Bunyodkor were just trailing by two points and waiting for our mistakes. When we scored the third goal, I was confident we are the champions."
Long and glorious history
The triumph saw Pakhtakor underline their pedigree as the central Asian nation's most successful club. The only Uzbek side to have featured in the former Soviet top league, previously known as the Supreme League, it was natural for Pakhtakor to emerge as the inaugural joint champions alongside Neftchi when the Uzbek League was formed in 1992 following the country's independence.
After spending the next seasons in the shadow of Neftchi, the capital side were crowned for the second time in 1998. The start of the new millennium would prove to be a fresh dawn for Pakhtakor. Known as Cotton Pickers in English, they routinely collected silverware, winning the league six times in a row from 2002 to 2007.
Adding to the unrivalled feats were eleven Uzbekistan Cup wins, while on the Asian front they maintained their record as the only side to have played in every AFC Champions League since its inauguration in 2003. Throughout their ten continental appearances, Pakhtakor progressed beyond the group stage on four occasions, including storming into the last four in the 2003 and 2004 editions.
Fittingly, given their dominant record over the years, the club have produced numerous stars during the past two decades. Notable among them are former national team captain and current Uzbekistan and Bunyodkor coach Mirdjalal Kasimov, striking legend Igor Shkvyrin, Anvar Soliev and Timur Kapadze, all of whom have been integral performers for both club and country during their prime days.
Their golden era, however, was brought to an abrupt close with the emergence of Bunyodkor, who dethroned them to taste their maiden success in only their second Uzbek league season in 2008. The difficulties were not helped as a series of star players departed, with two-time AFC Player of the Year Server Djeparov and ace-striker Alexander Geynrikh leaving for pastures new.
Pakhtakor were, indeed, depleted so severely that they were forced to count on fresh faces and young talents heading into the past season. Three draws plus a 3-1 defeat to Neftchi were amongst the opening six outings of the season as the team, arguably the youngest squad in their history, opened the campaign in lacklustre fashion.
On the continental scene, they failed to progress beyond the group phase, finishing third behind Al Ittihad and Baniyas. Despite defeating Al Arabi home and way, they picked up a mere point from the other four games which cost them a place in the knockout stage as well as Serbian coach Dejan Durdevic his job.
With Ismailov taking over in June, though, Pakhtakor gradually clawed themselves back into the contest. Maintaining the pressure on Bunyodkor into the closing stages, they climbed to the summit courtesy of a 3-0 demolition of Neftchi in early October. From there they never looked back, winning all the remaining three games en-route to the championship.
"We were not in a good position at the beginning of this season, but everyone at the club kept working hard until we won the league. And it was more precious for us that we prevailed with our youngest-ever squad. I took up the reins in the middle of the season and I am happy that I didn't do my job badly," Ismailov concluded.