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Asian Cup Preview: China vs Uzbekistan

Following the 1-0 victory over Saudi Arabia in their opening group game, China face an Uzbekistan side that overcame North Korea by the same scoreline in their first match. With the winners all but guaranteed to advance to the quarter-finals, this is a big game for both sides.  brings you the lowdown on Uzbekistan and looks ahead to what expect from the game.

Major Tournament History

Less than three years after stumbling from the ruins of a disintegrating Soviet Union, Uzbekistan exploded onto the continental football scene by winning the gold medal in the 1994 Asian Games football tournament. However, that competition was for the under-23s and the story of Uzbek football at senior level has been one of steady progression rather than headline grabbing success.

Making Progress: Uzbek players celebrate a goal on their way to the 2011 Asian Cup semi-final

Making Progress: Uzbek players celebrate a goal on their way to the 2011 Asian Cup semi-final

The White Wolves have qualified for all five Asian Cups held during their existence and their performances have been gradually improving since group stage eliminations in 1996 and 2000. Their 2004 and 2007 campaigns came to an end in the quarter-finals and 2011 saw the Uzbeks make the semi-final for the first time in their history. Unfortunately, that run to the last four was somewhat tarnished by the 6-0 spanking Australia gave them once they got there.

Aside from Asian Cup glory, another Uzbek goal which seems to be getting closer is the World Cup qualification which has so far eluded them. Uzbekistan have made it to the final round of every Asian qualifying tournament but have always fallen short. When trying to reach the tournament in Brazil, they went closer than ever by missing out on automatic qualification on goal difference and then losing a play-off to Jordan on penalties. It would be particularly special for the Uzbeks to qualify for the 2018 spectacle as it is being hosted by former Soviet patrons Russia with whom they have close ties and a long and complex history.

How they made it to Australia

Thanks to the AFC’s bizarre system of qualifying, Uzbekistan could have booked their ticket for Australia back in 2011 by finishing third at the Asian Cup. However, they were beaten 3-2 by South Korea in the third place playoff and, therefore, had to enter a straightforward looking qualifying group featuring Vietnam, Hong Kong and the UAE. With the top two making it to the competition proper, the White Wolves never looked like missing out, but a surprise draw at home to Hong Kong followed by defeat in Abu Dhabi meant that they, somewhat surprisingly, had to settle for a runners-up spot behind their Emirati opponents.

Recent news and form

While their qualification campaign for the Asian Cup was unconvincing, the Uzbeks came into the tournament in good form. A 3-0 reverse against Qatar in October has been their only defeat in eleven and the 1-0 win over North Korea marked an eighth clean sheet over those matches.

Unusually for a team at the Asian Cup, Uzbekistan have some degree of managerial stability with Mirjalol Qosimov in charge. A player in the 1994 Asian Games victory, Qosimov began his second spell at the helm in the summer of 2012 and is highly respected in his homeland.

Players to watch

Creative midfielder Server Djeparov is perhaps the most well-known player in the team. The 32-year-old, who currently plays for Seongnam in South Korea, has won over 100 caps for his team and has twice been named Asian Player of the Year. The team captain, Djeparov can play down the middle or on the left of midfield and he gave a glimpse of how dangerous he can be in the Uzbek’s opening game of the tournament when he levelled a pinpoint cross for Igor Sageev to head in the winning goal.

Alongside Djeparov in midfield will be 27-year-old Odil Ahmedov who plays his club football for Krasnodar in Russia. Ahmedov was actually a centre back at the 2011 Asian Cup but, thanks to his attacking exploits, has gradually been moved up the field and now plays just behind the striker. As well as being a creative midfielder, Ahmedov has a penchant for scoring outrageous goals, as his strike against Qatar in the opening game of the last tournament demonstrated.

Looking Good: Vitali Denisov's sense of fashion shouldn't undermine his abilities a an attacking left back

Looking Good: Vitali Denisov’s sense of fashion shouldn’t undermine his abilities a an attacking left back

Another standout based in the Russian Premier League is left back Vitaly Denisov who has, by all accounts, been outstanding for Lokomotiv Moscow over the last two years. Last season’s Russian Premier League left back of the year loves to get forward and is worth paying attention to for reasons other than just his spectacular “aging seventies rock star” haircut.

One final player of note to fans of the Chinese game is reliable centre back Anzur Ismailov who has spent his last four years playing in the Super League with Changchun Yatai. Ismailov’s 61 caps are a testament to his value to the team, but it will be interesting to see how he performs against a team of Chinese players that he will be very familiar with.

History vs China

In a total of nine games against the Uzbeks, China have won three and lost five. The two sides’ most recent meeting came in a friendly in Guangzhou in 2013 that saw the Uzbeks overcome a one goal deficit to win 2-1.

Forgettable: The last time the two sides met Uzbekistan won 2-1

Forgettable: The last time the two sides met Uzbekistan won 2-1

This game will mark the fourth time that the two sides have met in the Asian Cup and every contest has been in the group stages. Unfortunately for China. they are yet to beat the Uzbeks on the continental stage. Back in 1996, the Chinese lost 2-0 while still advancing to the knock-out stages of the competition, but results in 2007 and 2011 had far more negative consequences.

Eight years ago, in Malaysia, the two sides met in the final group game with China capitulating to a 3-0 defeat when only needing a draw to advance. Four years later, in Qatar, the teams once again clashed in the last first round match and, this time, China needed a win to make the quarter-finals. In the event, goals from Yu Hai and Hao Junmin weren’t enough as the two teams shared the spoils in a 2-2 draw and China, once again, went home early.

Prospects and Predictions

When the group stage draw was made, this was always going to be the game China would approach with the most trepidation. The good news is, that, thanks to the victory over Saudi Arabia, the pressure is completely off for this contest with the White Wolves. Few will expect China to get anything out of this game and, even if they don’t, they still have a decent chance of getting through to the quarter-finals with a positive result against North Korea. That’s not to say that Alain Perrin’s men should go into the match expecting nothing, but rather that they will benefit from facing the Uzbeks in a low pressure situation.

Wash Out: Uzbekistan's game against North Korea was played in horrendous weather conditions

Wash Out: Uzbekistan’s game against North Korea was played in horrendous weather conditions

Whether or not this translates into a positive result is a different matter. While China’s 1-0 victory over the Saudis had more than an element of good fortune to it, the Uzbeks looked comfortable, if not entirely convincing, in defeating North Korea by the same scoreline. Over the last six months or so, both of these teams have been difficult to score against and so it is unlikely that we are going to see many goals in Brisbane. With Djeparov and Ahmedov pulling the midfield strings while being supported by a pair of surging fullbacks, the resilient defending that China have demonstrated under Perrin will be tested to the limit.

A clean sheet will be a big ask and, if that proves unattainable, the worry is that China’s attack won’t be able to hold up their end of the bargain. Among their attacking four against Saudi Arabia, Yu Hai and Ji Xiang put in the workmanlike displays required of them, while Wu Lei and Hao Junmin failed to provide the creative spark that justifies their inclusion in the starting XI. The performances of Hao (should he maintain his place in the team) and, particularly, Wu will have to improve if China are going to get something from the game.

Like the contest with the Saudis, this is going to be a tight game where the result is difficult to call. While a win is not beyond the realms of possibility, China will be satisfied with a draw, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they set out with that goal in mind. Watching Uzbekistan’s game against North Korea gave the impression of a team that finds it difficult to score, but the biblical rains blighting that game should be taken into account when assessing their performance. Despite China’s undoubted progress under Perrin, Uzbekistan remain a marginally better team than them and that is likely to be reflected in a slender win for the Central Asians.

Prediction – Uzbekistan to edge the game 2-1

Based in China for five years, Jamie has been exploring tiny little third tier Hubei cities without football teams or decent internet connections, but is now a regular at China League One side Wuhan Zall. A keen football afficionado, he regularly takes in the Chinese Super League, enjoying matches in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Guangzhou and Nanjing. Jamie is also a keen observer of the fortunes of the Chinese National side.

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