Uzbeks find form, overwhelm Azkals
BOCAUE, Bulacan – Uzbekistan finally hit top form. Too bad, it came against a Philippines side that came out flat early on.
Technically superior and clinical in front of goal, the Uzbeks showed why they’re one of the continent’s elite sides, scoring a 5-1 beatdown of the Azkals last night in Group H of Asian zone World Cup Qualifying at Philippine Sports Stadium.
Skipper Odil Akmehdov struck less than a minute, setting the tone for Uzbekistan’s biggest win in the qualifying campaign so far while sending the Azkals crashing to their first defeat in three matches.
Igor Sergeev and Sardor Rashidov scored a goal in each half for the Uzbeks who moved into second spot in the group with six points, just ahead of the Azkals on goal difference.
Substitute Stephan Schrock curled a wonderful free kick in the second half, but the deficit proved too big to overcome as the Azkals conceded one more goal – another delightful strike Rashidov in the 80th minute.
The heavy defeat could prove telling for the Azkals as only the top team in the group will automatically advance to the third round. The four best second placed teams from among the eight qualifying groups will also reach the next round.
The Azkals relished the opportunity of playing an elite side to gauge their progress the past four years and the game against an Asian powerhouse in Uzbekistan provided them that opportunity.
The Azkals also took confidence from impressive wins over Bahrain (2-1) and Yemen (2-0) and liked their chances against an Uzbekistan side that lost to North Korea (2-4) and managed only a 1-0 win over Yemen last Thursday.
But a thunderstorm an hour before kickoff proved to be a portent of things to come for the Azkals.
It was a nightmarish start for the home side with Akmehdov scoring with a low strike from outside the box that slipped past the hands and between the legs of Azkals keeper Neil Etheridge. The Filipino custodian had been solid in the first two games, but he could have dealt well with the strike, notwithstanding the slick surface.
Rashidov doubled the lead in the 14th minute, quickly cutting inside from the right to beat Stephan Palla, before unleashing a powerful left-footed effort past Etheridge. The goal came off a quick switch of play on the left that gave Rashidov space to work his magic against Palla.
The Azkals finally settled into the game after 20 minutes with Javier Patino glancing a header just wide after a Martin Steuble cross. Steuble also won a free kick from a dangerous area, but his delivery failed to find a teammate.
Two minutes before halftime, the Uzbeks exposed the Azkals’ vulnerability to over the top balls.With little pressure, Anzur Ismailov floated in a ball that Luke Woodland. The ball fell kindly to Sergeev who fired a left-footed strike to Etheridge’s near post for a 3-nil lead at the break.
Determined to salvage the game, Dooley sent Stephan Schrock in for Stephan Palla, while Amani Aguinaldo replaced Woodland. Schrock was given a free role at midfield, while Bahadoran drifted to the center. The ploy gave the Azkals a bit more bite going forward as they won free kicks in good areas only to concede a fourth goal in the 65th minute.
It was the towering Sergeev who once again did the damage off the corner kick, gaining some separation from Jerry Lucena at the near post before heading past Etheridge.
Schrock pulled a goal back two minutes later after Bahadoran was fouled from 35 yards out. The Fil-German midfielder saw Uzbek keeper Aleksandr Lobanov off his line and he curled the ball over a crowd of players inside the area and into the back of the net.
But the Uzbeks weren’t done yet and a quick counter found its way to Rashidov who unleashed another curling strike from outside the box to seal the comprehensive win.
The Azkals face a couple of tough away matches in Pyongyang against North Korea on Oct. 8 and Manama against Bahrain on Oct. 13.
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