Strong Uzbeks power past Saudi Arabia into Asian Cup QF
Uzbekistan defeated Saudi Arabia 3-1 in the Asian Cup Group B game billed as a do-or-die showdown between two teams that have not reached their full potential at this tournament.
Here are three points from the entertaining match in Melbourne:
1. White Wolves' great escape
With their nation's Asian Cup hopes on the ropes, Uzbekistan coach Mirdjalal Kasimov promised an all-out attack in a bid to get to the quarterfinals, and he made good on that threat.
The White Wolves started strongly, pushing high up the park with aggression and physicality to unnerve the Saudi Arabians and capitalise on their traditionally slow starts in this tournament.
The tactic took less than two minutes to pay dividends. Midfielder Sardor Rashidov pounced on a poor defensive clearance on the right wing to drill home the opening goal, helped by a dreadful piece of goalkeeping by Waleed Abdullah, who couldn't get down fast enough to prevent being nutmegged as the ball went through him and into the net.
The Uzbeks continued to dominate, using their bigger bodies and tough tackling to outmuscle their opponents off the ball and deny the Saudis any real opportunity to get into the match.
They worked the ball heavily down the right wing to consistently expose the fragile Saudi defence through Rashidov and Shukhrat Mukkhammadiev, while on the other wing Jasur Khasanov also troubled the back four, driving in low hard crosses with his first touch.
At the back Vitaliy Denisov -- with his hulking frame and Samson-like locks -- was an imposing figure, as was Shavkatjon Mulladjanov, whose desperate tackle late in the half denied Saudi Arabia a potential equaliser.
By halftime, the Uzbeks could have easily been two or three goals up, with little sign of any meaningful resistance by Saudi Arabia.
However their physicality was almost their undoing in the second half, as Denisov clattered Naif Hazazi to give away a penalty, leaving it to Mohammed Al Sahlawi to stroke the ball into the bottom left corner.
With the Saudis only needing a draw, the Uzbeks found themselves chasing a game they had dominated, and their physicality began to earn several yellow cards.
However they weren't to be denied. An early cross from Mulladjanov was met by substitute Vokhid Shodiev, who restored the one goal lead just five minutes after coming on. Rashidov, who was declared man of the match, sealed the win with a blistering counterattack as Saudi Arabia desperately chased the equaliser.
The bench emptied onto the sidelines and the pitch in celebration, and with good reason. It was a huge turnaround and a well deserved one to see the White Wolves book themselves a quarterfinal berth.
2. Sluggish Saudis sent home
All tournament the Saudis have struggled to stamp their authority in the opening minutes of their matches, and they were eventually flattered in their one-sided win over a North Korea side lacking skill and creativity.
But against more defensively sound and desperate Uzbek side their start cost them dearly.
The Green Falcons appeared to be daydreaming in the opening minute until Rashidov took advantage of poor defending to score and put Saudi Arabia on the back foot immediately.
Their midfielders made matters worse by continually turning over possession, often in their own half. The strength and physicality of the Uzbeks were impressive and clearly intimidated the sluggish Saudi Arabia.
Goalkeeper Abdullah too will rue his start. Not only did he fail to make a regulation save but he was also responsible for spilling a number of long range efforts and the side was lucky to not to be down two goals early on.
Their lacklustre first half also meant that talismanic striker Mohammed Al Shalawi was rarely employed. Shalawi is an asset to the Saudis and they should be utilising his creativity and instinctive goalscoring ability for 90 minutes as opposed to 45. Shalawi barely had the ball in the first half and as a result Saudi Arabia failed to find an avenue to goal.
If Saudi Arabia wish to once again be seen as a powerhouse Asian nation, a great deal of works is required to sharpen them up and ensure they're focused from the opening whistle.
They were a team who entered the tournament with a great deal of expectation and after failing in the group stages for the third time in their last four Asian Cup appearances, tough questions will be asked of Romanian coach Cosmin Olaroiu once the side returns home.
3. Beware of the cards Uzbeks
With China surprising most to top Group B, Uzbekistan have a far tougher route to the final, with South Korea awaiting them in Melbourne on Jan. 22.
Despite a slow start, the White Wolves have shown they do have some formidable weapons in the lightning-fast Rashidov and Mukkhammadiev, who almost scored the goal of the tournament with a deft chip and stinging volley that somehow flew just wide.
Their physicality has the potential to unsettle the Koreans, but it could also be Uzbekistan's undoing, after they earned five yellow cards in the match against Saudi Arabia.
They will also need to find a true target man up front, with striker Bakhodir Nasimov kept quiet all match and most chances coming from the midfield.
Korea are one of the most technically skilled teams in the Asian Cup, and they are unlikely to give up possession as easily as Saudi Arabia did. Therefore, Uzbekistan's progression to the semifinal is a tough ask.
On their night, Uzbekistan could easily pinch a goal from any team in this competition. Whether they can keep all 11 men on the pitch to defend their lead is another question altogether.