Tajikistan vs Japan
Friday’s UFWC title match sees champions Japan again face Tajikistan. The Tajiks have been given the chance to immediately redeem themselves following the 8-0 thrashing they received in the previous match last month.
As much as the former Soviet republic would like to cause an astonishing upset, a more realistic aim would be to not lose quite so heavily. After all, Japan’s dominance in the previous encounter was absolute.
Tajikistan had just 26% of the possession and couldn’t keep the ball for more than 30 seconds at a time. Japan’s goalkeeper, Eiji Kawashima, only got his first touch in the 33rd minute.
But then again, the Tajiks never expected to be here – competing against the more skilful and successful Asian nations in the penultimate stage of qualification to the 2014 World Cup.
In the previous round of qualifying they actually suffered a humiliating 6-1 aggregate loss to Syria, but they were reinstated when FIFA ruled that the latter’s half-Syrian/half-Swedish striker George Mourad was ineligible.
And before Tajikistan were comprehensively beaten by the Japanese – the 8-0 scoreline represented their biggest ever loss – they weren’t doing that badly. In their first two group games they twice narrowly lost 1-0, at home to Uzbekistan and away in North Korea.
So, with three losses already to their name, it seems unlikely that Tajikistan will progress to the final hurdle of World Cup qualification.
They have, in fact, never made it to the World Cup finals and are yet to qualify for an Asian Cup. But this is hardly surprising considering the national team was only formed when Soviet Russia fell in the early 90s.
Their only considerable achievements have come in the AFC Challenge Cup – a tournament specifically designed for the ‘developing’ football nations in Asia. In the inaugural competition in 2006, Tajikistan lifted the trophy following a 4-0 victory over Sri Lanka. In 2008, they finished runners-up behind hosts India, and in 2010 they claimed third place. Tajikistan have made the cut for next year’s event in Nepal, and a triumphant campaign would guarantee them a spot at the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia.
But before all that, they have a World Cup qualifying group to complete. Tajikistan don’t have any star players like Makoto Hasebe and Shinji Kagawa, who will line up against them on 11 November. In fact, they don’t have any recognisable faces at all.
The squad that faced Japan in Osaka last month was made up entirely of players from the Tajik domestic league. Those most likely to threaten the Blue Samurai are midfielder Ibrahim Rabimov, who won the 2006 Challenge Cup player of the tournament at just 18, and captain Yusuf Rabiev. Rabiev is the country’s all-time highest scorer and was last season’s top finisher in the Tajik league.
Rabiev’s team, Istiqlol, won the league and cup double last season, hence the reason why their coach, Alimzhon Rafikov, was given national team duties following the departure of Pulod Kodirov after the 4-0 home defeat to Syria.
Tajikistan have yet to score under Rafikov, and this looks unlikely to change any time soon. While they technically lined up 5-4-1 in Osaka, Japan’s supremacy saw it altered to a 9-0-1 formation. Predictably, the Tajiks failed to register a shot.
However, we can all dream. If Tajikistan were to somehow grab a goal and hold out for a victory, we would surely have witnessed the greatest UFWC upset of all time.
Follow Jordan on Twitter: @JBlackwell92