Uzbekistan’s breakthrough showing at last month’s AFC Asian Cup Qatar 2011 has resulted in the Central Asians being the biggest movers in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. A debut qualification for the last four of the continental showpiece, following two successive quarter-final appearances, resulted in a massive shift of 31 places up to 77 in the global pecking order.

In doing so Uzbekistan claimed a whopping 139 points to move into sixth among Asia’s top-ranked teams, leapfrogging numerous AFC nations in the process. While the Uzbeks still sit someway off their all-time highest ranking of 45, achieved in November 2006 and again in January 2007, there is genuine reason for optimism.

Enigmatic Uzbeks
The Central Asians saw their 2010 FIFA World Cup™ ultimately trail off ignominiously with a string of disappointing results, but along the way they showed their potency with a rout of Saudi Arabia and a draw in Japan. It was a theme that was maintained somewhat in the months leading up to the tournament and then at Qatar 2011.

The portents were bad for the Uzbeks who had won just one of eight matches during 2010. Against the hosts in the opening match, always a difficult assignment, the Uzbeks defied the odds to prevail 2-0 in an impressive attacking performance. They went on to top the group by seeing off West Asian champions Kuwait and then drawing with China in their final group outing. Uzbekistan then overcame Jordan in the quarter-final to plough new ground on the continent’s grandest stage.

Their semi-final debut not only ended in massive disappointment but highlighted some defensive frailties that had not previously been exposed. Scoring twice in all four previous matches meant the backline had not faced significant pressure but 2-0 down to Australia at half-time prefaced the Uzbeks collapse to lose 6-0.

It looked like a repeat performance against Korea Republic in the match for third place was on the cards, with the East Asians holding a 3-0 ascendency only for the White Wolves to rally before ultimately failing 3-2 and missing automatic qualification for Australia 2015. Uzbekistan lost a number of key defenders to injury during and prior to the tournament meaning a makeshift backline was in operation by tournament’s end.

“Those (defensive) mistakes are understandable if you consider that we were missing a lot of our first-choice defenders for this tournament and we had to rely on a make-shift defence,” said midfielder Aziz Haydarov. “We must continue to work on our defence and try to show some improved performances when the World Cup qualifiers take place.”

Attacking talent
Scoring two goals in five of their six matches was evidence of Uzbekistan’s attacking prowess which undoubtedly the team’s strength. Former Dynamo Kiev frontrunner Maksim Shatskikh remains a force despite his 32 years, while Alexander Geynrikh displayed utmost confidence whenever in possession, finishing the tournament with three goals to his name.

However the jewel in the crown was once again talisman Server Djeparov. The former AFC Player of the Year collected the Most Valuable Player award in each of the group matches. Always a danger at free-kicks 28-year-old Djeparov, the FC Seoul attacking midfielder, will once again be the pivot around which coach Vadim Abramov will build his side for the upcoming tilt at Brazil 2014.

Formerly part of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan has been incrementally building their football development since affiliating with FIFA in 1994. Numerous academies have been set up across the country in recent years and is beginning to pay dividends. Later this year Uzbekistan will appear in their maiden FIFA U-17 World Cup after the young team recently claimed qualification in front of massive crowds in Tashkent, with the national U-20 team having participated at Egypt 2009. The indications are that Uzbekistan’s latest achievements will not be fleeting.