Three Burning Questions: Socceroos v Uzbekistan

by Ben Somerford on Jan 20, 2019

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All of a sudden Australia’s path to the 2019 Asian Cup final has opened up but there’s an obstacle to get past firstly on Monday night and that’s the White Wolves of Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan have more substance than simply being the butt of Borat jokes as Kazakhstan's 'fiercy enemy', and having pushed Japan all the way in Group F, will present a tough challenge for Graham Arnold’s unconvincing Socceroos from 1am (AEDT) Tuesday.

With a spot in the quarter-finals against either hosts UAE or Kyrgyzstan up for grabs, GGArmy’s Ben Somerford asks three burning questions to be resolved.

How good are Uzbekistan?
The White Wolves are currently ranked 95th in the world but they are better than that suggests. Uzbekistan are the great under-achievers of the Asian Football Confederation, having never qualified for a World Cup nor ever reaching an Asian Cup final. In fact, their tales of World Cup failures is something Socceroos supporters from the 80s and 90s could relate to.

However, this is a side with vast potential boasting quality like Odil Ahmedov, Ignatiy Nesterov and Anzur Ismailov who’ve all earned more than 90 caps each. It is, though, a side going through change with their most-capped player Server Djeparov absent, while Vitali Denisov was left at home.

Coached by Argentine Hector Cuper, who took Egypt to the 2018 World Cup, Uzbekistan pushed Japan in their final group game, although the Blue Samurai shaded them and deserved their 2-1 win. Australia have beaten Uzbekistan on all three occasions they’ve played them, including a 6-0 thrashing in the 2011 Asian Cup semi-finals but on their evidence of their group stage, the White Wolves will be no pushovers.

Who makes way for Trent Sainsbury?
Centre-back Sainsbury is available again after a one-match suspension after accumulating two yellow cards in Australia’s opening two matches. His absence was felt with an unconvincing display against Syria and he’ll be ushered straight back into the starting XI.

It’s likely Arnold will switch Mark Milligan, who replaced Sainsbury in defence, back into midfield, with either Jackson Irvine or Massimo Luongo to make way. Luongo is the obvious choice as last man in, meaning he’s first man out, but he did a decent job against Syria. Irvine offers an attacking threat which neither Luongo and Milligan can, so he holds his spot.

Milos Degenek is the other option and while Arnold won’t want to unsettle his side, the new Al Hilal signing has had some nervous moments this tournament and pairing Milligan and Sainsbury could have a steadying influence.

What to do with Mathew Leckie?
The Hertha Berlin winger is close to returning to fitness, although he’s unlikely to be ready to make the starting XI against Uzbekistan.

Leckie’s absence during the Asian Cup so far has opened the door for Chris Ikonomidis and Awer Mabil who’ve impressed. If Leckie was fully fit, it’s hard to argue he’d be an automatic starter given the pair’s form.

With all that in mind, there is scope for the former Adelaide United man to be utilised off the bench in attack, to potentially replace Jamie Maclaren whose radar has been off this tournament. Maclaren could even lose his spot in the starting XI given Apostolos Giannou’s impressive cameos off the bench.

Leckie, though, could be a serious impact player if the game is up for grabs with 20 minutes to go.