Uzbekistan vs Japan
Pakhtakor Markaziy Stadium,
6 September 2011,
1900 local (1500 BST)
On Tuesday, UFWC champions Japan will attempt to defend their title against new challengers Uzbekistan in a UFWC title match / WC qualifier. Japan have now gone 12 games unbeaten as champions, and narrowly defeated North Korea courtesy of an injury time Maya Yoshida header in the last title match on Friday. This away match is likely to be a trickier test. An impressive Asian Cup performance means that Uzbekistan are hardly an unknown quantity. But they are newcomers to the UFWC, so what can Japan expect from the latest challengers?
Part of the former Soviet Union, the land-locked country borders with Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Independence was claimed in 1991. Capital city Tashkent is 3,700 miles west of Tokyo. So it’s a huge journey for the Japanese team. Could that have a bearing on the result?
Uzbekistan has never participated in the UFWC before, although if you follow the UFWC spin-offs you’ll know that the county did hold the unofficial Asian title going into January’s Asian Cup – a tournament that was, of course, won by Japan. The Uzbeks did pretty well in Qatar, beating the hosts 2-0, and Kuwait 3-0, then drawing 2-2 with China to top their group. A 2-1 win over Jordan saw the side progress to the semi-final stage, only to be thrashed 6-0 by a very impressive Australia. The Uzbeks lost 3-2 to South Korea in the third place play-off, and so finished fourth overall.
Since then, the Uzbeks have been beaten by Montenegro, Ukraine and China. However, the nation’s last three matches have all been victories – a 4-0 and a 3-0 against Kyrgyzstan in the previous round of WC qualifying, and then, in Friday’s group match, a 1-0 win over Tajikistan. There was trouble ahead of the match in Tajikistan as crowds of fans attempted to break through a police cordon in order to gain admittance to the sold-out arena in Tursunzade. The match wasn’t being shown on TV in deference to a political summit, and fans were desperate to see the game.
Uzbekistan and Japan have met seven times before, with five wins for Japan, and two draws. Japan fans may recall their side’s 8-1 victory over Uzbekistan – the Uzbeks’ biggest ever loss – in October 2000. The last meeting, in Tashkent in June 2009, was another World Cup Qualifier. Japan won 1-0 to clinch qualification, with Shinji Okazaki scoring the goal. So Uzbekistan has never beaten Japan. Could this be the first time?
The Uzbek coach is Vadim Abramov, who took over the reigns last year after five years as assistant. Veteran striker Maksim Shatskikh is the nation’s all-time top scorer with 34 goals. The 33-year-old Arsenal Kyiv player scored the only goal against Tajikistan on Friday – netting a rebound after having a penalty kick saved.
Japan will also need to be aware of Suwon Bluewings attacking midfielder Alexander Geynrikh, who was the Uzbek’s top scorer at the Asian Cup. Defensive midfielder Odil Ahmedov, of FC Anzhi, can get forward and score goals, and team captain Server Djeparov of Al-Shabab is another midfielder with an eye for goal.
As for Japan, we can expect Alberto Zaccheroni to pick a similar team to the one that defeated North Korea, still without the injured Keisuke Honda, and with Yosuke Kashiwagi replacing him behind Tadanari Lee. Chikashi Masuda has been added to the squad since Friday to provide extra cover in midfield. Striker Mike Havenaar, who made his debut from the bench on Friday, will hope to get another run out.
The match kicks off at 7pm local time, which is 3pm in London and 11pm in Tokyo. As usual, we’ll be providing full coverage right here.
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So, can Japan retain the UFWC title? Twelve matches unbeaten is a remarkable record, and the win against North Korea pushed the team into the all-time top 20 UFWC rankings. A win against Uzbekistan would extend the run to 13 games, and push Japan clear of Colombia and Romania in the rankings. But the trip to Uzbekistan will not be an easy one. Can Uzbekistan make a name for themselves in world soccer and become Unofficial Football World Champions? All that is certain is that another exciting UFWC title match awaits.