All to play for in Jordan-Uzbekistan play-off

Posted by John Duerden

It's the $100 million game; the play-off final that decides which championship team goes to the promised land of the English Premier League. How, especially if you have never been there before, could you put a price on qualifying for the World Cup in a similar fashion? Fans in Uzbekistan and Jordan can only imagine, but maybe not for much longer. The Asian team that triumphs over the other in their continental play-off will then just have to defeat South America's fifth-placed nation in November for a place in Brazil.

An hour before kick-off of the first leg of this 'semi-final' in Amman on Friday -- the return match is in Uzbekistan on Tuesday -- the King Abdullah International Stadium was full and the oversize faces of the monarch and his father King Hussein, both depicted on large banners above the arena, were full of smiles. As the game kicked off, the decibel level rose higher and faster than the Jordan national team through FIFA rankings of late. Four years ago, they languished in 122nd. Now they are 71st, and not done yet.

The noise level peaked when Musab Al Lahem put the hosts ahead against the run of play on the half hour yet five minutes later, the vast majority of the 17,000 in the compact arena fell silent thanks to Server Djeparov's equaliser. The scoreline stayed 1-1. There is all to play for in Tashkent.

The away goal gives the visitors the advantage but it is wide open. Jordan will have to improve on what was a surprisingly flat first leg performance, especially in the first half. Uzbekistan leave the Middle East satisfied with the result but with the familiar self-doubt as to whether they can take the all-important step to the final showdown.

There are often two kinds of teams when it comes to play-offs. There are those who are simply delighted to be there while there are those still coming to terms with the fact that they did not achieve their goal, whether it be promotion or qualification for the World Cup, automatically. There are no prizes for guessing which camp these two fall into.

Jordan have never been so close to the global stage and, in June, were delighted to defeat Oman 1-0 in the final game in Asia's final round of qualification to clinch third place. Despite losing 6-0 in Japan and 4-0 in Australia, Adnan Hamad's men were unbeaten at home, defeating both Socceroos and Samurai Blue. That was a success but the subsequent departure of the Iraqi coach was a blow. In came Hossam Hassam, a legendary figure in Egyptian football, ready to try and achieve similar status in the Jordanian hall of football fame in super quick time.

Hassam, who played for Al Ahly and then managed Cairo rivals Zamalek, made four changes to the team that defeated Oman but the expected Jordanian onslaught never came. Uzbekistan started much the brighter. The hosts had conceded more goals than any of the ten teams in the final round of qualification and, sure enough, there were large spaces between defence and midfield for the Uzbek players to enjoy themselves. Server Djeparov two time Asian Player of the Year, Jasur Khasanov and Vitaliy Denisov all combined well. The Central Asians continually got themselves into good positions in the game but all too often, the final ball was lacking.

Just when the visitors had seemed to have lowered the temperature of the febrile atmosphere, Jordan struck with a bolt from the blue. The standard of football in the country has improved considerably over the years and that was in evidence with a fine passing move that cut through a static blue backline. When Al Lahem, who started the attack, prodded the ball past stand-in goalkeeper Murotjon Zukhurov after 30 minutes, the country was dreaming of Brazil. Uzbekistan was thinking: "here were go again."

This stage of World Cup qualification does not hold happy memories. Both coach Mirdljalal Kasimov and captain Server Djeparov were at the centre of events back in 2005 when headlines of "Uz woz robbed" went around the world.

Uzbekistan captain Server Djeparov (C) celebrates after equalising against Jordan.
GettyImagesUzbekistan captain Server Djeparov (C) celebrates after equalising against Jordan.

Exactly eight years and three days earlier, the team faced Bahrain in the first leg of the continental play-off. Kasimov put Uzbekistan ahead and then before the break, Djeparov slotted home a penalty to put the team on course for a final and winnable play-off with Trinidad and Tobago. But then referee Toshimitsu Yoshida blew the whistle for encroachment into the area and instead of ordering the kick to be retaken, the Japanese official gave Bahrain a free-kick to the disbelief of just about everyone.

"If that penalty had counted, we were so dominant that I think we would have won three or four nil," Uzbekistan’s coach at the time, Bob Houghton, told me last year. "I remember leaving the pitch at half-time and asking the fourth official and saying to him: "What the hell is that?" He replied that it was a new rule." It wasn’t of course and the Uzbekistan Football Federation was soon on the phone to FIFA.

Perhaps Uzbekistan, who won the game 1-0, should have let it go instead of continually calling for an automatic 3-0 win to be awarded. Meanwhile the players headed to Bahrain for the second leg only to turn around as soon as they arrived upon learning that FIFA had ordered a replay. Bahrain performed better at the second time of asking in Tashkent, drawing 1-1 and then held out for a goalless draw at home to go through on away goals. The realization that a Japanese referee would be in charge in Jordan provoked a few mutterings in the local press.

And then there is the fact that Uzbekistan are disappointed to be doing this at all. A win in South Korea in the penultimate match of qualification would have clinched a first World Cup spot. A disappointing 1-0 defeat in Seoul left them up against it and in the end; the former Soviet Republic missed out on the two automatic spots on goal difference. Brazil was so close, yet so far away.

The same could have been said after Al Lahem’s opener but fortunately, just five minutes later, Djeparov was left unmarked inside the area, and while his shot was tame, so was Amer Shefi’s attempt - the goalkeeper was erratic all evening - to save it.

If the first half was Uzbekistan's, Jordan showed more life in the second, helped by the introduction of attacking stars Odey Al Saifi and Adballah Deeb, who added some intensity, energy and movement in the final third. The hosts pushed for a second goal, but it wasn’t to be. Overall, it was a disappointing evening for a lacklustre Jordan. This was not the same team that knocked Australia and Japan aside. Hassan put it down to his players being out of season. If so, he has three days to get it right.

But Tuesday offers hope for both. Uzbekistan will be satisfied with the result and know that Jordan's away record has been dismal of late. While Jordan know that Uzbekistan have a habit of falling when the finish line is in sight. One will be proven wrong in Tashkent.

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