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Asian Eye - Uzbekistan gunning for World Cup qualification

Asia – the world’s biggest, most populated continent. For decades now, it has been identified by scheming football entrepreneurs not just as a growth market, but the place to strike it rich – a vast, mostly untapped oilfield of financial plenty.

Yet, for most of the footballing world, Asia remains a backwater. Barring South Korea’s incredulous 2002 World Cup Semi-Final venture, no Asian national team has yet made even the slightest of dents on the global scene, and although a smattering of Asian players have made it in Europe – Hidetoshi Nakata, Park Ji-sung, Ali Daei – few have garnered much more than cult support.

We are still a long way off finding the Asian Lionel Messi. Much of the reason for this has been the rather dull and highly predictable dominance of three teams - Far Eastern giants South Korea and Japan; and, after their move to the AFC, Australia.

Betting against these three teams to qualify for the any given World Cup is as ridiculous a prospect as putting a tenner on Man Utd getting relegated next season. But seismic shifts seem to be afoot in the AFC. Footballing minnows have smelt blood as the bigger guns have lost their way.

Australia’s “golden generation”, the likes of Kewell, Emerton, Viduka and co, have failed to fire on many an occasion, and the younger Socceroos are still finding their feet.

Ageing warhorses

A crisis in leadership has blighted South Korea, who are still, in fact, managerless, still relying on a reluctant caretaker coach and the ageing warhorses of the 2006 World Cup campaign. Japan’s honeymoon period with coach Alberto Zaccheroni seems to be at an end. The AFC’s small fry know that their time is now.

And no team epitomises this more than Uzbekistan. Early last year, they announced their intent with a run of form that saw them reach the Semi-Finals of the Asian Cup.

Since then, they have gone from strength to strength, finishing the third round of Asian World Cup Qualifiers six points clear top of a group that contained Japan and North Korea, both 2010 World Cup finalists.

The last match of the group was their real tour-de-force, though, their second string side humbling the mighty Japan 1-0 in Toyota on February 29 – a result that has left the Japanese media fuming. However, anyone following Uzbek football would have told you this result was a long time coming.

Their coach, Vadim Abramov, is a veteran of the Uzbeki league system, and has proved a dab hand at selection – since he took charge, they have lost only two competitive matches - in addition to the fine away win in Japan, they have also beaten North Korea in Pyeongyang.

Most exciting players

The current White Wolves side boasts some of Asia's most exciting players, their midfield, in particular, boasts two of the continent's most fearsome players.

Server Djeparov (pictured) has twice been voted Asian Player of the Year. Odil Ahmedov, defensive midfielder extraordinaire, now plays under Guus Hiddink at super-rich Russian League side Anzi Makhaschkala, but has previously been courted by the likes of Bolton, AS Monaco and Besiktas.

But there is talent throught the team – striker Maksim Shatskih, now 33, has played in numerous Champions League campaigns for Dynamo Kiev, and young defender Vitaly Denisov has played in the Europa League for Juande Ramos' Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk.

Players like promising young goalkeeper Sanjar Kuvvatov have demonstrated that the future is bright.

But all this cheer will amount to nothing if Uzbekistan cannot progress through the final round of Asian qualifying to reach their first ever World Cup in Brazil 2014, and they will face much tougher teams in the coming months.

The groups for the fourth round will not be drawn until March 9, but Uzbek fans will be fearing nobody on the back of recent form. And as North Korean and Japanese fans will testify, you write off the White Wolves at your own peril.

By Tim Alper

Tim Alper writes for South Korea's leading football monthly magzine, Best Eleven.

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