Opinion

Mentality could be key to Tokyo door for Australia

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If, as Samuel Johnson said, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, then in football, talk about mentality is the first sign of the desperate. And yet, it may just give Australia the edge over Uzbekistan.

The two meet on Saturday in a 2020 AFC U-23 Championship third-place playoff.

Such events are often depressing affairs between two teams that are still coming to terms with missing out on the final - and after the footballing lesson handed to Australia by Korea Republic in the semi-final, there is a lot to come to terms with - but this time, the winner goes to the Olympics in Tokyo.

What has been an up and down tournament for the Olyroos will be seen as a success if the team can take that third spot.

The opportunity to take a second bite of the cherry or, mouthful of durian, as they say in Thailand, is rare in international tournaments. 

The game could be a fascinating case study in mental strength. Australia are usually seen as a team with that in abundance while Uzbekistan are almost as desperate to shed a reputation for the opposite as they bid to go to the Olympics for the very first time.

To put it bluntly, Uzbekistan are known in Asian football for having a choking habit.

The repeated failure of a successive bunch of talented players to qualify for a major international tournament - the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics - hangs like a shadow over the White Wolves. 

Back in 1994, just after the break up of the Soviet Union, the newly-formed Uzbekistan won the Asian Games.

There was alarm in East and West Asia that a talented European-style team had suddenly appeared in the middle of the continent and would soon be taking already-limited World Cup and Olympic spots away.

That has not been the case despite Uzbekistan being in positions where they should have done so. 

The 2006 World Cup was a case in point. In the continental playoff Uzbekistan lost to Bahrain, or in reality, they lost to themselves after a ludicrous refereeing decision stopped them taking a 2-0 first-leg lead.

They really should have qualified for the 2014 World Cup ahead of a poor Korea Republic but, needing a point in Seoul in the penultimate game, lost 1-0 to an own goal, finished on the same points and just missed out.

In the final round for 2018, they won three out of the first four and were looking good but then fell away.

Even so, had they defeated Korea Republic at home in the final game, a place in Russia awaited. It ended 0-0.

On Thursday, Uzbekistan really should have defeated Saudi Arabia to reach the final and get that ticket to Tokyo.

Instead,the defending champions (Uzbekistan won the 2018 title when there was no Olympic prize on offer) blew it.

There were numerous opportunities to put the game to bed but they were not taken. As the game progressed, the nerves came, and it was no surprise when the Saudis snatched victory with three minutes remaining. 

The talent is there, though it was looking tired at the end.

Striker Bobur Abdikholikov missed chances he would normally put away and is likely to start again.

Khojiakbar Alijonov has been one of the best full-backs in the tournament, getting up and down the right to start many an attack.

Azizjon Ganiev in the middle has helped set the tempo and Abdulla Abdullayev has emerged a steady defensive midfielder who is adept at protecting the back four and starting another attack.

Coach Ljubinko Drulovic has experience playing at the highest level with Porto and Benfica and led his homeland Serbia to the UEFA U-19 title in 2013.

Not long in Tashkent, he has not had much time to instill the faster passing game he wants but will be looking to inject some of that Serbian fighting spirit.

Uzbekistan coaches don’t want to discuss past failures but the prospect of missing out on another major tournament weighs heavy.

An aggressive Australian start may just bring back some painful memories of past chokes.

Mentality is an overused word in football but on Saturday, it could be the deciding factor.