Tehran – When the talk of powerhouses in Asian football is brought up, the first teams you think of are South Korea, Japan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Australia.
But the fact of the matter is there is a new force to be reckoned with in Asian football: Uzbekistan. The White Wolves of Central Asia came close to booking an automatic qualifying spot to Brazil 2014 and have shown they can play with the likes of Iran and South Korea.
For many Uzbek supporters, this is the qualifying campaign where they feel they have the best chance to qualify for their first ever world cup and it is only fitting that a ticket to Russia is at stake for the former Soviet Republic.
Iran and Uzbekistan have been drawn into the same group for the final round of qualifying for the second consecutive tournament. In the last edition of qualifying, it was the road team that won 1-0 on both occasions.
In June 2012, Team Melli would have been satisfied leaving Tashkent with a scoreless draw but instead they left with all three points as they punished the Uzbeks on a counterattack that led to a goal from Mohammad Reza Khalatbari in the fourth minute of stoppage time.
The Uzbeks were the dominant side and felt they were robbed of a goal when a free kick that went into the penalty area led to a shot beating then TM keeper Mehdi Rahmati but was blocked by the hand of defender Jalal Hosseini and cleared to safety. Naturally the referee could have whistled for a penalty but more importantly the replay showed the ball very likely crossed the goal line.
Four months later on a rainy night in Tehran, TM were the better side and a goal from Reza Ghoochannejhad in the first half was disallowed as the linesman raised his flag for Mohammad Nouri impeding Uzbek keeper Nesterov while in an offside position. The Iranians were furious and protested in vain but the call stood.
In the second half a long free kick from the Uzbeks saw the ball float into no-man’s land and a left-footed volley from Ulugbek Bakayev beat Rahmati to give Uzbekistan a crucial 1-0 lead. TM supporters were upset with Rahmati for not coming out to punch the ball to safety and ironically it would end up being the last time we saw Rahmati between the posts for Iran.
The match that night was physical and tempers flared between players from both teams. I remember seeing the highlights and realizing that a new rivalry had emerged in Asian football.
The Uzbeks were delighted at the final whistle while the Iranians could not fathom that they had just been defeated at the intimidating Azadi Stadium.
Iran ended up winning the group to qualify for Brazil 2014 while Uzbekistan had to try their luck of qualifying through the dreaded play-off route.
Here we are now and the next match for Iran will be against Uzbekistan in Tashkent on the third match day of the current final round of world cup qualifying.
Uzbekistan are sitting pretty at top of the group as they earned maximum points with wins against Syria and Qatar. Iran started off with a 2-0 home win against Qatar but dropped points in a scoreless draw with China in Shenyang.
Iran has well-known players such as Sardar Azmoun and Saeid Ezatolahi – currently playing for Rostov in the Russian Premier League – who are able to create trouble for the Uzbeks. Yet it is important to know that Uzbekistan have talented players such as Olid Ahmedov, Vitali Denisov, Alexander Geynrikh, and Server Djeparov. Ahmedov and Denisov are currently plying their trade in the Russian Premier League with the former at Krasnodar and the latter at Lokomotiv Moscow.
On paper, Iran have more talent but the Uzbeks have shown they can play a consistent level of football and we all know the Iranian team suffers from inconsistency every qualifying campaign. At times we have seen TM play with heart and find ways to win but then there are times when they look out of sync and lack team work. Which TM will we see in Tashkent?
Clearly at this moment the odds are not in favor for Iran to take three points against Uzbekistan. A tie in Tashkent would not be a bad result but TM need to shoot for the victory if they want to show why they are the top ranked team in Asia.
In recent years the rivalry between Iran and South Korea has arguably been the most exciting in Asia but a new rivalry between Iran and Uzbekistan continues on 6 October at Bunyodkor Stadium.