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Opening win will set us up nicely, says Uzbekistan's Cuper

Kuala Lumpur: Uzbekistan coach Hector Cuper is hoping his side can kick off their FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023 Asian Qualifiers campaign with a win over Palestine on Thursday to set the tone for the Central Asian side's challenge.

Uzbekistan have established themselves among the upper echelon of Asian football but have yet to represent the Continent on the game’s greatest stage and Cuper – who led Egypt to the FIFA World Cup in Russia in 2018 – is determined to make a strong start to their challenge later this week.

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“It’s always very important to start with three points, because a favourable result will lay the foundation for the next victories,” the Argentinian told “Talking about Palestine, I should state that they are a really tough and aggressive opponent who will be trying to take advantage of playing in front of their fans.

“Moreover, playing on an artificial pitch is always unpleasant for players who are not accustomed to playing on this kind of surface conditions. But we are going to do everything possible in order to get a good result.”

Uzbekistan face Palestine in Group D, which also features five-time FIFA World Cup qualifiers Saudi Arabia as well as Singapore and Yemen, who meet in their opening game in Singapore on Thursday.

And while Cuper acknowledges the Saudis will go into the second round of qualifying as favourites to claim pole position in the group, he believes it is up to Herve Renard’s side to prove themselves on the pitch.

“There is no team to be underestimated in our group,” he said. “In theory, Saudi Arabia may seem to be the main contender to win the group as they were in the first pot during the draw, but now they need to prove it on the pitch also.

“Therefore, we need to treat all our opponents very seriously and to show our best to qualify for the next round of the Qualifiers. In my opinion, all the teams in our group have an equal chance to go to the next phase.”

Cuper took over as head coach in August 2018 and in the year since he led Uzbekistan at the Finals of the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019, where they were unfortunate to lose out to Australia in a penalty shootout in the Round of 16.

Despite that disappointing result, Cuper believes the team – which features an increasing number of players from the squad that won the AFC U23 Championship in China last year - has improved since his arrival, even though he has spent a limited amount of time with his players.

2018 Final: Vietnam 1-2 Uzbekistan

“The national team of Uzbekistan managed to develop in all aspects during this one-year period, but there is always enough space to improve ourselves,” he said.

“Working with the national team, one can’t afford to have the players all the time to work on all things which we would like to do. Therefore, we mostly need to focus on the specific details during the trainings."

“The main strength of our team is our faith in everything that we are doing together as a team. All the players and team members are united to achieve our collective goal: to qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

“Talking about the U23 Asian champions, these players already have an important role in the national team. As proof of that, seven players from the squad which won the 2018 AFC U-23 Championship were capped before the upcoming match against Palestine.”

Uzbekistan have narrowly missed out on a place at the FIFA World Cup in the past – most notably for the 2006 Finals in Germany – but Cuper believes his team will have a chance to book their place in Qatar in 2022 if they stick to their principals.

“Yes, Uzbekistan has never been in the World Cup, but we always were a step away from qualifying,” he said. “Each time we lacked something. Now we have changed and maybe we have improved the aspects that cost us the previous qualifications.

“The most fundamental thing for us is to follow the path which we have chosen, despite all difficulties we are going to encounter.”

Photos: Uzbekistan Football Association, AFC

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