Double joy for Uzbekistan
© FIFA.com

Uzbekistan had two reasons for celebration in March. Not only did the Central Asians beat Saudi Arabia 3-0 in their second outing of the continent's third stage of qualifying to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, but they also climbed ten places to 60th on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. Moreover, they leapfrogged Iraq into sixth place in Asia's pecking order on the global ladder in the process, edging ever closer to the 'big five' of Japan, Australia, Korea Republic, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

With the impressive victory coming after a 1-0 reverse of Lebanon in their third round opener, the former Soviet republic cemented their presence atop of Group 4, which also includes Singapore. Alisher Nikimbaev, head of Uzbekistan's national team administration, was pleased by the side's start, but stressed the need to remain focused.

Only the top two group finishers will advance to Asia's top ten in the next phase, so we can take nothing for granted with four games remaining
Alisher Nikimbaev, head of Uzbekistan's national team administration, warns the team against complacency

" ," he told FIFA.com. "However, the results in the opening two games showed that under coach Rauf Inileyev, our team are progressing in the right direction."

Familiar face
Uzbekistan had spent three years under the guidance of a trio of foreign coaches, namely German Jurgen Gede, Bob Houghton of England and Russia's Valeri Nepomniatchi, before turning their attention to the native Rauf Inileyev, a tactician of considerable experience with the country's youth teams at the end of 2006.

"Inileyev may not be a big name but he is the first coach in our country who spent much of his coaching career with the youth teams at almost all levels, from U-16 to U-23, before he took over the national senior side," Nikimbaev said.

In his first tournament in charge, Inileyev proved himself by guiding Uzbekistan to the quarter-finals of the AFC Asian Cup 2007, where they were only edged 2-1 by Saudi Arabia. "We were the better team as we produced more chances against Saudi Arabia, but our rivals converted two of their few chances to seal an unlikely win," Nikimbaev recalled.

The recent qualifier against Saudi Arabia provided coach Inileyev and his charges with a shot at revenge, and despite missing two first-choice midfielders through injury, Uzbekistan ran out winners. "We had both Vitaliy Denisov and Marat Bimaev injured in the friendly against Jordan in the build-up to the Saudi Arabia game," Nikimbaev explained. "The loss of the two key players forced us to change our 4-4-2 formation as a result."

Instead of employing a defensive approach, Inileyev surprised both his fans and rivals alike by fielding a three-pronged attack, with the midfield duo of Timur Kapadze and Victor Karpenko pushing forward in support. His tactical change paid off as Karpenko put Uzbekistan ahead one minute after the restart, before Maksim Shatskikh and Server Djeparov each scored in the space of two minutes to seal a famous win.

Inileyev was naturally a happy man. "We used two midfielders as forwards and some may not like the way we played," he said. "But the approach worked well and we are satisfied with the outcome."

Last chance for Shatskikh
Since winning gold at their debut continental adventure at the Asian Games 1994 in Hiroshima, Uzbekistan have failed to make a major impact at international level. After spending the subsequent years in footballing wilderness, however, the Uzbekistanis are on the verge of reviving the country's fortunes with a team more than capable of realising their ambitions.

The team are in the best period as the majority of the players are 26 to 27, the best ages for a football player
Nikimbaev explains his confidence in Uzbekistan's chances of reaching South Africa 2010

" ," said Nikimbaev. "Most of the team have played together over the past three or four years and the team spirit has reached its highest point."

Much pressure rests on the broad shoulders of Dynamo Kiev marksman Shatskikh, who the Uzbekistanis hope can steer them to maiden appearance at the FIFA World Cup finals. "Maksim turns 30 this August and the South Africa 2010 would probably be his last chance to play in a World Cup. I do hope he will make it this time while our team go through Asia's tough qualifying competition," Nikimbaev concluded.