Football

UZBEKISTAN: Hoping that Server's up and running

CHECKED: Uzbekistan's Server Djeparov (No. 8) holding off Iraq's Ahmad Yaseen in a friendly on Dec 28 which ended 0-0.
  • Previous appearances: 5
  • Best showing: Fourth (2011)
  • Fifa world ranking: 74
  • How they qualified: Group E runners-up behind UAE (three wins, two draws, one loss).
  • Coach: Mirdjalal Kasimov, Former midfielder, who led local side Bunyodkor after hanging up his boots in 2005. Took up the national team job in 2008 but returned to Bunyodkor after failing to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. Reappointed national coach two years ago after Vadim Abramov's resignation.
  • Star player: Server Djeparov
 Uzbekistan's talisman who has enjoyed a trophy-laden career and had stints in Saudi Arabia and South Korea. The attacking midfielder, 32, who had just been released by Seongnam FC, will be looking to shine.

Once courted by EPL giants Chelsea, Djeparov was also the Asian Footballer of the Year in 2008 and 2011.

  • Verdict: Coach Kasimov is lamenting a lack of firepower up front, so much will depend on the play-making and dead-ball abilities of Djeparov. A semi-final spot looks possible if he fires on all cylinders.

"I have to admit that we have problems with strikers. The match with Iraq shows that clearly."

- Uzbekistan coach Mirdjalal Kasimov, referring to the 0-0 draw in a friendly on Dec 28


GROUP B 
FIXTURES

Saturday

  • Uzbekistan v North Korea (3pm)
  • Saudi Arabia v China (5pm)

Jan 14

  • North Korea v Saudi Arabia (3pm)
  • China v Uzbekistan (5pm)

Jan 18

  • Uzbekistan v Saudi Arabia (5pm)
  • China v North Korea (5pm)

CHINA

Redemption time

  • Previous appearances: 10
  • Best showing: 2nd (1984, 2004)
  • Fifa world ranking: 97
  • How they qualified: Highest-ranked thirdplaced team in qualifying draw.
  • Coach: Alain Perrin, Was appointed last February, six months after former Spain coach Jose Antonio Camacho was sacked. Perrin’s first match, a 1-3 loss to Iraq, was enough for China to scrape through to the Asian Cup Finals.
  • Star player: Zheng Zhi (above) The former Charlton and Celtic playmaker, 34, has thrived on his return home, winning the domestic title and AFC Champions League with Guangzhou Evergrande.
  • Verdict: This young side, with Zheng the only player above 30, are on a 10-game unbeaten run, and they might well extend it.

NORTH KOREA

Defying the odds

  • Previous appearances: 3
  • Best showing: Fourth (1980)
  • Fifa world ranking: 150
  • How they qualified: Champions of 2012 AFC Challenge Cup.
  • Coach: Jo Tong Sop (right) Returned late last month to replace his successor Yun Jong Su, who was banned for 12 months by the AFC for “offensive behaviour” during the Asian Games final in October, when his side lost 0-1 to South Korea.
  • Star player: Pak Kwang Ryong The 22-year-old forward tasted Champions League action as a substitute with Swiss side Basel.
  • Verdict: This young side will need to rely much on spirit to advance.

SAUDI ARABIA

Racing against time

  • Previous appearances: 8
  • Best showing: Winners (1984, 1988, 1996)
  • Fifa world ranking: 102
  • How they qualified: Topped Group C qualifying with five wins and a draw.
  • Coach: Cosmin Olaroiu The Romanian, who enjoyed success with several Middle East clubs, took over last month after Juan Ramon Lopez Caro was sacked for losing the Gulf Cup final to Qatar 1-2 at home.
  • Star player: Nasser Al-Shamrani (right) The forward was named AFC Footballer of the Year for scoring 10 goals as Al-Hilal reached the AFC Champions League final.
  • Verdict: Much depends on how fast the players take to Olaroiu, whose two friendlies have ended in losses. — Wire Services.