"I don’t agree that we were lucky," said Saudi Arabian coach Helio Dos Anjos after his team defeated Uzbekistan 2-1 in the quarter-final of the Asian Cup in Jakarta.
Such comments are not an unreasonable thing for a coach after a game. They are not true however. The Saudis played their part in a very good game of football –easily the best of a fairly lethargic quarter-final stage and probably the most entertaining of the competition so far. The Sons of the Desert scored twice -their second was the best goal that has been seen in south-east Asia this July - and had a number of chances to score more.
The Saudis were lucky however –just as Uzbekistan were unlucky. Caught between West and East Asia, Uzbekistan are often overlooked and their exploits are often unreported. Maksim Shatskikh is a respected striker for Dinamo Kiev but is hardly a household name with the status of a Park, Nakamura or Karimi. He is a steely-eyed shooter however and like his team-mates, he will be missed.
Ten goals came in four games from the free-scoring Central Asians - only one in the opening game against Iran, five against the hapless Malaysians and three to dump the Chinese out of the competition at the first hurdle.
Reading some reports, the 3-0 victory over the Chinese was the shock of the competition though it is hard to understand why. The Uzbeks made the quarters last time round and were only denied a place in the last four because of a penalty shootout. Unlike China, they reached the final round of World Cup qualifying and were unluckily denied by Bahrain and a monumental blunder from Japanese referee Toshimitsu Yoshida. Uzbekistan were leading 1-0 when they were awarded a penalty. Due to encroachment, the referee disallowed the goal and instead of rulinga retake, gave Bahrain a free-kick. FIFA ordered that the match be replayed and Bahrain went on to win.
If that is not enough, going into the game the Uzbeks were 19 places higher than the Chinese in FIFA’s rankings.
Four times they hit the woodwork on Sunday evening. Four times shots or headers rebounded firmly from the frame. Four times the blue-shirted players held their heads in their hands and four times the Saudi players had their hearts in their mouths.
As well as the near misses, Rauf Inileyev’s team were the victims of the worst decision in a tournament of erratic officiating. With the Saudis leading 1-0, Shatskikh was onside by some distance when a free-kick was driven at the Saudi goalkeeper but, in a game-changing error, was given offside as he put the rebound into the net.
Credit should be given to the affable Inileyev for not moaning about that after the game and credit to Uzbekistan for bringinga great deal to the 2007 Asian Cup.
"Both teams showed great heart, great passing and played a beautiful game," said Inileyev. "The God of football was not on our side today. We were just unlucky. After a game I never blame the referees as they can make mistakes."
After the Bahrain debacle in 2005 , some Uzbek officials talked of leaving Asia in order to join Europe. Fortunately they didn’t and it will be a pleasure to see players like Shatskikh, the skilful Server Djeparov ,the impressive Vitaliy Denisov and the youthful Alexander Geynrikh in the future.