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Jan 15, 2011

Uzbeks emerge as dark horses

Uzbekistan is one of only two double-landlocked countries - Liechtenstein is the other - and is entirely surrounded by nations with no coastline. To go from the capital Tashkent to get a glimpse of the nearest deep blue sea, you have to cross two borders. Uzbekistan is also one of only two nations at the 2011 Asian Cup with a 100% record - Iran is the other - and may still have barriers to overcome, but after two games, four goals and six points, the last eight beckons.

The country is located right in the middle of Asia and if the team can continue its form, then Central Asia could soon be at the football (as well as geographic) heart of the giant continent. The former Soviet republic doused the hosts' fire in the tournament's opener with a 2-0 win over Qatar and then ended Kuwaiti dreams with the same scoreline.

Uzbekistan are well-organised and technically sound. Server Djeparov is showing, finally, that he was a worthy recipient of the 2008 Asian Player of the Year award and the playmaker is fortunate to be surrounded by quality players. Just behind him in the three-man midfield are Timur Kapadze and Aziz Haydarov. In attack Aleksandr Geynrikh is finally supplanting the veteran Maksim Shatskikh as the team's main man and with the defence marshalled well by Anzur Ismailov and Odil Ahmedov, usually a midfielder, Uzbekistan have what it takes to progress past the quarter-final stage, which has proved to be the end of the line for them at the last two tournaments.

It remains to be seen if the team's Achilles heel, located in its collective head, can handle the expectations of success. In the past, Uzbekistan have moved out of the shadows to within sight of a trophy, only to be dazzled by the prize on offer.

A point against China will be enough to qualify. East Asian optimism vanished with a 2-0 defeat against hosts Qatar and the familiar doubts have returned. But China is not a nation that forgets its history and all remember the last edition of the tournament. In Malaysia, the team started well but crashed out at the end of the group stage following a loss at Uzbek hands.

Qatar, like China, have three points and will be more confident of getting a result in front of their own fans against the already-eliminated Kuwaitis. The 1980 winners arrived in Doha on the back of a Gulf Cup victory but never really recovered from some bad luck and poor officiating in the opening match. Kuwait will get another chance to show if they really are a force to be reckoned with during qualification for the 2014 World Cup.

Two teams that are already forces met on Friday night in the tie of the round as Australia drew 1-1 with South Korea in a match played at a different level to many so far in Qatar. As an advert for Asian football, it was a good one with two contrasting styles on display. Korea's pass-and-move groove caused problems though Koo Ja-Cheol's third goal of the tournament came via the most singular route one football. Korea's inability to defend a set-piece gave Australia a second-half equaliser.

Despite the youth on display in the Korean line-up, it was the familiar who impressed. Harry Kewell was a thorn in the East Asian side and, the goal notwithstanding, Lucas Neill was a rock in defence. Cha Du-Ri produced a powerful display on the right while fellow 2002 World Cup veteran Park Ji-Sung was the best player on the pitch with a lesson in movement and intelligence.

Both have four points going into the last match of the group, though perhaps Korea's position is slightly superior with a clash against India still to come and an improvement in goal difference that the game is expected to bring. After a 4-0 defeat to the Socceroos, the South Asians gave a good account of themselves when losing 5-2 to Bahrain, but the two favourites are expected to progress.

If that is predictable then Group B has been anything but. Saudi Arabia, who fired coach Jose Peseiro after their opening defeat against Syria, are out of the tournament after a 1-0 loss against Jordan. In the past eight editions, the Falcons have reached the final six times and fallen at the first hurdle twice. There has been nothing in between. The Saudi goalkeeper was also caught in no-man's land in the first-half, allowing a cross to float over his head an, try as the three-time champions might, they just couldn't get the goal that would have kept their hopes alive heading into the final group game against Japan. It was expected that at least one of the giants would have little to play for by the time they met, but because of progression, not elimination.

Japan were almost the victims of another surprise result but pulled through to defeat Syria 2-1. With Samurai Blue a goal to the good with 15 minutes remaining, a controversial decision left them a man down and gave Syria a spot kick. The Japanese reaction to the decision and the six-minute delay that ensued before the West Asians converted was disappointing. What wasn't was the way that Samurai Blue recovered to be awarded their own penalty that was converted, just, by Keisuke Honda.

Group D was labelled as the Group of Death but should perhaps be known as the Group of Dearth after just five goals have been recorded, three of them to Iran who became the first team to book a quarter-final place after collecting maximum points. Team Melli, searching for a first title since 1976, squeezed past North Korea with a 1-0 win. Pejman Nouri fired over a cross from the left and highly-rated young striker Karim Ansarifard nipped in front of his man at the near post to guide the ball past Ri Myung Guk for the first time in this tournament. Hong Yong Jo should have earned a point in injury time but fired over the bar from close range. North Korea have still yet to score and time is running out.

Time had almost gone as Iraq bounced back from their Iranian defeat to pick up a 1-0 win over UAE. An own goal in the 93rd minute sparked wild celebrations at the end of an entertaining game in which both teams could have scored over and over again. A win for Iraq over North Korea in the final game will be enough.

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