We’ve got a lot of exciting posts up ahead, including a recap of the Suwon Continental Cup that saw Lee Seungwoo light up the competition(!!!), but what more relevant to post about than Tuesday’s crucial World Cup qualifier against Uzbekistan? And who better to turn to than Asian Football aficionado Tomas Danicek? I sent him some questions about Uzbekistan, and he, as always, answered in eloquent detail. Read on!
1. Well, well, well. It’s Uzbekistan again. Korea’s had the upper hand in our past few encounters, but only just. How’s World Cup Qualification treating the Uzbeks?
A lot has changed since that Asian Cup quarter-final. At least three members of the defence (including goalkeeper) are to be alternated and only Rashidov-Akhmedov clique is expected to retain their roles further up the pitch.
Especially at the back, Uzbekistan now look more solid, led by one of the best centre backs in Chinese Super League, Egor Krimets. They have kept a clean sheet in five out of the past six qualifiers, which is nothing short of exceptional. Odil Akhmedov now has a freer role, contributing more to offence, and overall, there are plenty of good long-distance shooters and fit, strong runners on the team.
That being said, there’s (weirdly) often not enough verticality going forward, the team can’t rely on any consistent difference-making playmaker and they generally seem to attack in waves. Their second-half performance against China was absolutely breath-taking at times, but those were rather rare occasions when they‘ve looked properly fired up in this third qualifying round. Throughout other passages, they’ve been shockingly toothless.
2. Lee Jaesung made his national team for Korea back in March 2015 against the Uzbeks, and Uli Stielike has reiterated how for his system to work, all players need to be mobile. The general consensus seems to be that a Ji Dongwon or a Lee Jeonghyeob up top, combined with a more fluid style of play, will function much better against the Uzbeks than say, starting the Wookie up top from very beginning. Do you agree with his assessment? (In other words, how is Uzbekistan vulnerable?)
Oooohhh, a Lee Jae-sung mention and it didn’t even have to be me!
Yeah, I would concur – keep the ball on the ground and look for open spaces especially behind the right back. Iran started with a crossing heavy game plan against Uzbekistan, and albeit they did eventually score from a set piece header, during open play, it often looked like peak Moyes‘ Manchester United. And that’s Iran! With the notoriously poor South Korean crossing game, it might end up being even a more amusing experience.
Hence, I would rather suggest to count on the eye for a through ball and incisive passing play since none of their centre backs are particularly mobile and they are without their deepest lying CM (Khaydarov) for the very first time in these qualifiers (!), so there ought to be some adjusting period.
3. If Korea loses this game, it’s almost certainly the end of Uli Stielike’s tenure as national team boss, with a Technical Committee meeting already planned after the match to discuss Stielike’s managership (among other things). Are the Uzbeks feeling the same pressure at home? Any heads on the chopping block?
As far as the manager is concerned, not at all. In fact, Uzbekistan are something of an antithesis to South Korea. While Stielike registers many harsh critics from my point of view, Samvel Babayan is getting a rather unnecessarily free ride. So much so that his frustrating bias against some players, who’ve chosen not to collaborate with his favourite agent (notably Dostonbek Khamdamov, an immensely talented 20-year-old and AFC Youth Player of the Year 2016), is being tolerated.
Despite some bumps towards the end of the second round, Babayan is a respected coach by all, having won the domestic title with the youngest squad around (2014 with Pakhtakor), and improved the national team’s performance considerably after the universally unpopular Qosimov.
However, if we look at the squad list, there are a few star names that have been underwhelming (at best) recently and this is obviously a fabulous occasion for them to stick it to their critics. More about this in the following section, though.
4. Server Djeparov is still playing national team football?! Somewhere, Lee Donggook is wondering why he wasn’t born an Uzbek. Is Djeparov the player to watch? Or is it Igor Sergeev? What needs to happen for Uzbekistan to draw or take all three points in Seoul?
Yeah, but he’s (Djeparov) not the inspirational leader he once was. Far from it, in fact. My theory is that with the legendary mullet, his supreme power was gone. To be fair, he had contributed to the remarkable Lokomotiv Tashkent run to the ACL semi-final, but on the international scene, he’s no longer capable of imposing himself on an opposing side. His set piece delivery has turned crap, and if anyone can fully claim the title of a revitalized veteran, it’s 32yo Aleksandr Geynrikh (flashback to the 2011 Asian Cup everyone!) who often provides the sorely missing spark off the bench and delivers key goals.
Djeparov’s health has also started deteriorating. He limped off halfway through the Iran game with muscular problems and he’s actually injured right now too – with his chances to feature vs South Korea being rated at 50-50 by a local expert.
As for the proper key players, South Korea are lucky. At least judging by the recent qualifiers, Uzbekistan attacking force is nothing like the one Babayan could rely on early in his stint. Back then, the Sergeev – Rashidov – Akhmedov star triumvirate was responsible for almost every goal (and a lot of them!), while the first two are now in the middle of their worst national team streaks.
Sergeev has been struggling mightily in China (where he’s on loan from Pakhtakor), having been even deployed on left wing at times, and is yet to score for Uzbeks in 2016. Rashidov has even found himself on bench against China, something unthinkable in 2015, but was included in the Middle Eastern team of the week by Ahdaaf after the past weekend, so he goes into this break with new found confidence.
Anyway, my man to watch would be Eldor Shomurodov on the left wing. He’s very raw – ever so often closing his eyes and trying to somehow round his marker, rash when shooting – but he should never be underestimated and allowed much free space. Lightning quick.
5. Predicted lineup?
Lobanov – Tukhtakhodjaev, Krimets, Khashimov/Ismailov, Denisov – Afonin, Shukurov (Djeparov), Akhmedov – Rashidov, Sergeev, Shomurodov
Khashimov has started two of the three most recent qualifiers and hails from Babayan’s beloved Pakhtakor (hence his club cooperation with goalkeeper Lobanov is a plus), but a much more experienced Ismailov was preferred against Iran, another tough opponent. Given his experience with East Asian football, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ismailov is given a nod once again.
One notable absentee in central midfield is Azizbek Khaydarov, a robust ball-winner who’s freshly injured. After starting against Iran, one more great test therefore probably beckons for 2015 U-20 World Cup participant Otabek Shukurov, and Vadim Afonin (with a sole cap from 2012, but impressing in Russia) should go straight into the XI to further buttress the attacking trio + ever restless Akhmedov.
6. Score prediction and final thoughts?
I sort of feel both sides will neutralize each other and so we may witness an insipid 0:0 draw, an affair not too dissimilar to your match with Iran, resulting in Stielike’s adieu. Let’s hope for better, though.