Uzbekistan ready to shed 'chokers' tag with Socceroos shock

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The last time Australia met Uzbekistan at the AFC Asian Cup was back in the semi-finals of 2011 when the Socceroos thrashed the White Wolves 6-0.

It was not the kind of scoreline you expect to see at the pointy end of a tournament and it was obviously a humiliation for the Central Asians.

It still burns and Monday’s meeting in the second round of the 2019 version is a chance to put it to bed.

But there is much more to it than that. This is a chance to put many things to bed. The nearly-men of Asian football, the continent’s chokers, can signal that things have changed by sending the Socceroos home.

Of the fifteen countries that emerged as the Soviet Union broke up in the early nineties, it was Uzbekistan that roared out into the open world, winning the 1994 Asian Games.

Here was a European team in the east, signalling that to the established powers such as South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia that there were new kids from the old Soviet bloc.

It hasn’t quite happened. Uzbekistan have threatened to become a major force in Asian football without making that final step. The class of ‘94 have been and gone but the country is still waiting to go to the FIFA World Cup.

In 2005 Uzbekistan made the continental play-offs but lost to Bahrain in farcical circumstances. Ahead in the first leg 1-0, there was a penalty to extend the lead. Server Djeparov scored but the Japanese referee had blown for encroachment. Instead of a retake, he gave the confused but delighted Middle Easterners a free-kick.

The match official pretended it was a new rule introduced by FIFA but the Uzbek federation knew different and were soon on the phone to the world governing body after the 1-0 win, demanding a 3-0 forfeit.

It backfired as by the time the team arrived in Manama for the second leg, they were ordered home for a replay that didn’t go too well and Bahrain went through.

Qualification for 2010 did not go well but the road to Brazil four years later was wide open. South Korea were struggling but Uzbekistan failed to take advantage, doing too little too late and just missing out by the slenderest of goal differences.

Something similar happened last time around and had Uzbekistan defeated the Koreans at home in the final game, they would have qualified. It ended 0-0.

The talent has always been there but the mentality has been questioned.That is why Hector Cuper was hired in September by a federation that likes to hire local tacticians.

The Argentine’s job is to instill a steely side and make Uzbekistan a less obliging opponent. I last saw him at the 2018 World Cup telling unhappy Egyptian journalists that they should not be surprised at the team’s defensive style as that is pretty much his style too.

Yet Uzbekistan have not been as dour as expected so far with wins over Oman and Turkmenistan and defeat against Japan, though both teams were already through at that point.

Cuper has often plumped for experience over potential but not so much in the United Arab Emirates. There has been good reason for the man who took Valencia to successive UEFA Champions League finals, to put his trust in youth. The youth deserves it.

Last January in the snow of China, Uzbekistan became U-23 Champions of Asia. Three semi-final appearances at the last five U-19 Championships and successive knockout stage appearances at the 2013 and 2015 U-20 World Cup suggests that the future is bright.

It’s here, right now, especially with players like Eldor Shomurodov, one of the stars of the group stage. The 23-year-old with four goals to his name already is tall, skillful and fast, and with excellent close control and a love of dribbling.

Also based in Russia and impressing in the UAE is the talented wide man Dostonbek Khamdamov, 2015 AFC Youth Player of the Year.

There is experience too. Odil Ahmedov, a survivor from 2011 and once linked to Arsenal, is now a senior figure in the middle and old hand Ignatiy Nesterov is still impressing between the sticks, Uzbekistan have a solid spine and should be able to handle any physical threat that comes from the Socceroos.

There are concerns at the full-back position with Vitaliy Denisov, one of the best left-backs in Asia for some years, left behind. It may be a decision that Cuper regrets.

There are plenty of regrets in Tashkent when it comes to Asian football. Uzbekistan need to shake off their label as ‘chokers’. There is no better way to do that than to knock out the defending champions.