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Magical Moments: Uzbekistan storm to 2018 title

Kuala Lumpur: When Andrey Sidorov struck in the final minute of extra-time to help Uzbekistan seal the AFC U23 Championship China 2018 title, it capped a truly remarkable campaign by the Central Asian nation.

The victory was, in truth, just rewards for a side that – after an initial wobble – rarely looked back. A richly deserved trophy for a team which played attacking, expansive football, for players who all skipped to the same beat. Players who were united by their desire to succeed.

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Not that they had it all their own way. Indeed, after losing 1-0 to Qatar in their opening Group A match an air of despondency had descended on the White Wolves.

The defeat hit them hard and left many neutral observers wondering if Ravshan Khaydarov’s charges really had what it took to become champions.

“After we lost the opening match (against Qatar), not many people thought we would succeed, but those closest to us definitely did,” Uzbek ace Odiljon Xamrobekov, the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, would later tell reporters.

As it transpired, in the wake of their loss, Uzbekistan were impressively quick to prove their doubters wrong.

On Matchday Two, Khojiakbar Alijonov scored the decisive goal in a 1-0 win over host nation China PR, before a similar scoreline against West Asian opponents Oman saw a suddenly resurgent Uzbekistan finish second in the group behind the table-topping Qataris.

Having secured their place in the knockout phase, what followed next only served to emphatically underline the crucial momentum Uzbekistan were gathering.

Four goals in the space of 16 minutes ensured a sumptuous 4-0 success against 2016 winners Japan in the quarter-finals, while vital extra-time strikes from Azizjon Ganiev, Jasurbek Yakhshiboev and Akramjon Komilov duly completed a 4-1 defeat of Korea Republic in the last four.

Uzbekistan were through to the final.

Facing them in the title showdown, however, were a Vietnam outfit who themselves had earned plaudits galore for their performances in China. It would prove to be yet another tough test for Uzbekistan.

With all to play for, it was Uzbekistan who controlled the early proceedings, and they duly took the lead on eight minutes when a poorly marked Rustamjon Ashurmatov stooped to head home Dostonbek Khamdamov’s outswinging corner.

In decidedly wintry conditions at the Changzhou Olympic Sports Center, Uzbekistan continued to press after the breakthrough, as both a Javokhir Sidikov header and Khamdamov’s effort from 20 yards forced Vietnam goalkeeper Bui Tien Dung into smart saves.

Despite struggling to fully impose themselves on the game, Vietnam briefly threatened to restore parity shortly after the half-hour mark when Pham Xuan Manh’s excellent cross narrowly eluded the onrushing Phan Vanh Duc and Nguyen Quang Hai.

However, after seeing Ganiev fire narrowly over, Vietnam were to draw level on the stroke of half-time. Nguyen Cong Phuong was brought down on the edge of the area, and from the resulting free-kick Quang Hai superbly curled the ball past the despairing dive of Botirali Ergashev to register his fifth goal of the tournament.

After a delayed restart to allow a layer of snow to be removed from the pitch, Uzbekistan were the first to shine once again, this time 2015 AFC Young Player of the Year Khamdamov stinging the palms of Tien Dung courtesy of a 48th minute long-range drive.

2018 Final: Vietnam 1-2 Uzbekistan

Moments later, Tien Dung, the hero of Vietnam’s semi-final win over Iraq, reacted well to deny Sidikov from six yards, before inspirational Uzbekistan captain Zabikhillo Urinboev fizzed a shot wide of the left-hand upright on 70 minutes.

In the last meaningful action of normal time, Urinboev could, and very possibly should, have won the match for his side, but the striker inexplicably lashed his attempt from eight yards over the bar after Tien Dung had parried Komilov’s cross into his path.

Urinboev’s miss was to matter little in the end though, as Sidorov applied the finishing touch to another pinpoint Khamdamov corner to seal the title for Uzbekistan amid delirious scenes of celebration.

It was, truly, a magical moment.

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