Uzbekistan have a history of performing solidly rather than spectacularly at Asian Cups.
In 2015, that should again be the case. Mirjalol Qosimov, in his second spell as Uzbekistan’s head coach, has assembled a strong, settled side who have an excellent understanding with each other. They’re the real dark horses of the competition – not really in the debate about potential winners, but capable of going on a good run in the knockout stages.
Tactically, Qosimov prefers 4-2-3-1, a formation that will be very popular in this tournament. His side are good in possession and work the ball forward patiently. All players work hard without the ball, and they’ll be one of the more proactive sides when defending.
At the back, Shavkatjon Mulladjanov and Anzur Ismailov are physical, mobile defenders who are good at covering in behind the full-backs, both of whom like to get forward. Left-back Vitaly Denisov plays in the Russian Premier League and could be a revelation at this tournament, while Islom Tuhtahujaev on the right has made a late charge for the starting XI after impressing at the Asian Games.
In midfield, the experienced Timur Kapadze sits deepest and protects the defence, with the defensively minded Azizbek Haydarov likely to play alongside him. Rounding out the midfield triangle will be Odil Akhmedov, who should be familiar to those watched the 2011 Asian Cup. Then, he was an elegant centre-back who fittingly wore number 9, because he was happy to bring the ball out from defence and go on deadly runs deep inside the opposition half. It worked brilliantly at times, like when he scored an absolute screamer in the opening game against Qatar, but also backfired horrifically in that infamous 6-0 semi-final defeat against Australia.
Akhmedov is the ‘crown jewel’ of the national side, and has increasingly been pushed forward into more advanced positions. He makes clever late runs into the box and scored twice in a recent friendly against New Zealand, illustrating his goalscoring prowess.
Akhmedov can also play deeper, which would allow Server Djeparov to play as a #10. Against stronger teams, however, Qosimov might be tempted to go with two holding midfielders in front of the defence, and use Djeparov from the left, drifting inside between the lines. This allow helps create room for Denisov to get forward on the overlap. Djeparov has made over 100 appearances for Uzbekistan, won the Asian Player of the Year in 2008 and 2011, is the country’s fourth highest goalscorer of all time with 23, and will probably get some media attention for his mullet-like hair.
Upfront is the big question mark. Since the retirement of Maksim Shatskikh, who is his country and the Ukraine Premier League’s all-time leading goalscorer, Uzbekistan have struggled to find a reliable centre-forward. Igor Sergeev, after scoring 11 in 25 for his club side, will probably get the nod.
A lack of goals is another reason why Akhmedov might play deeper. It allows Qosimov to use two out-and-out wingers, and have Djeparov and Akhmedov as runners from midfield to create more goalscoring threats. When using this format, Uzbekistan can be brilliant – some of their attacking in qualifying for this tournament was brilliant.
This is actually the first time Qosimov has been in charge of Uzbekistan whilst not also managing a club team, after he stepped down from the Bunyodkor job in 2014. He has also taken on extra responsibility by coaching the youth teams, and took charge of the U23 side at the Asian Games in October last year. That was an opportunity to assess some of the younger prospects with an eye to replacing some of the old faces in the senior team, like Djeparov and Kapadze, and paid off with the inclusion of the likes of Sergeev and Tuhtahujaev in this squad.
This tournament is not so much about competing – although Uzbekistan are capable of at least the semi-finals – as it is about the long-term future of the side, with an eye on securing qualification for the World Cup, taking place in neighbouring Russia.