Germany are, without doubt, formidable opponents. Having won their fourth FIFA World Cup™ title last year in Brazil in rampaging fashion, their sights are now on the FIFA U-20 World Cup in New Zealand.
Few question the chances of the Germans, who took last year's qualification tournament by storm as they emerged winners. But among those aspiring to defy the odds is Uzbekistan coach Ravshan Khaydarov, who has fixed his sights on surprising the Europeans in a group also featuring Honduras and Fiji.
"German teams are strong at all age levels so their youth team is no exception," the 53-year old former Uzbekistan and Pakhtakor manager told FIFA.com. "They have a squad consisting mainly of Bundesliga players. We respect them but we are afraid of no one. If we want to progress from our group, we have to do our best and get a good result from every game."
Khaydarov can be forgiven his seemingly bold plans considering the recent progress the team has made. His commenced his tenure in fine fashion at last October's AFC U-19 Championship in Myanmar, when they sealed successful qualification for New Zealand 2015. In the process, the Uzbeks remained undefeated to progress from their group at the expense of Australia on goal difference, before edging Thailand 2-1 en route to the last four.
"Our players made progress both mentally and physically (in the Asian campaign)," continued Khaydarov, who is considered among Uzbekistan's most accomplished managers, having taken Pakhtakor to two domestic titles. "On one hand, the qualifying success has seen their confidence boosted. On the other hand, they have become campaign-hardened."
The players' performances on the continental scene didn't go unnoticed as they have since figured prominently with their respective clubs. As a matter of fact, as many as 15 players from this current squad are strutting their stuff with the nation’s big-four - Bunyodkor, Pakhtakor, Lokomotiv and Nasaf Qarshi - all of whom are competing in the ongoing AFC Champions League.
"A host of these players have made it into the starting line-ups with their respective teams, which means that they can gain international experiences and exposure from the Asian competition," said the two-time Uzbekistan Coach of the Year. "I think they deserve the places taking into account their showings in the Asian U-19 Championship."
*Urinboev the talisman
*While the entire team excelled during qualifying, there was one player who stood out as a star in the making. Zabikhillo Urinboev, who plies his trade with five-time Uzbek winners Bunyodkor, finished as the U-19 tournament’s joint top-scorer with five goals as Uzbekistan sealed their fourth FIFA U-20 World Cup appearance. Recently, the 20-year-old netted the equaliser as Bunyodkor grabbed an away point in a 1-1 draw with Al Nassr in the AFC Champions League.
All the more impressive is the fact that Urinboev already boasts five appearances from two FIFA competitions. He was part of the squad which made it to the last eight in the 2011 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Mexico. Urinboev also featured in their U-20 team at Turkey 2013, where Uzbekistan again reached the quarter-finals.
"Urinboev is our leading goalscorer and I have full faith in him," said Khaydarov. "He helps form the team's backbone, given his exceptional experiences from two FIFA tournaments. He is among Bunyodkor's starting eleven and is maintaining his form on both the home and Asian front with his club. As long as he continues his consistent performances, I believe he will greatly help in New Zealand."
As an experienced coach, Khaydarov is all too aware that down-to-earth preparation is important during the build-up. "We have been studying our opponents closely. Both Honduras and Fiji represent strong forces from their respective regions and we can't afford to underestimate either side. Germany are the favourites of this group and they played well in continental championship as they qualified for the World Cup as champions."
"Davie Selke is particularly impressive. This player should be their leader in New Zealand," he added, referring to a physically imposing Werder Bremen forward who scored in every game except the final to win the top goalscorer and player of the tournament awards in the UEFA European U-19 Championship in Hungary.
Uzbekistan impressed in their debut at UAE 2003 and, despite the failure to progress beyond the group stage, a series of burgeoning stars from that squad graduated into the senior side which Khaydarov took to the last-eight finish in the 2004 AFC Asian Cup.
For him, coaching youngsters is more than just winning plaudits. "I am very glad to have been given this youth team job,” he said. “Uzbekistan have made good progress over recent years as result of our youth development schemes by the FA as well as courtesy of our government's support. Uzbekistan have a lot of youth talents who are eligible to play for the country and who are capable of competing at this age level. I want them to showcase their progress in front of the watching world and make our fans happy.”