Tashkent: The one-time presence of a Brazilian FIFA World Cup-winner was all Dragan Ćeran knew of Uzbekistan before he arrived in 2016, but four years and more than 80 goals later, he has proven to be something of a world-beater himself.
The Serbian forward is the Uzbekistan Super League’s reigning Player of the Year, the scorer of 37 goals last season and key figure in a Pakhtakor side which has lost one competitive match in the past 12 months.
With the league resuming after a three-month hiatus on Saturday, Ćeran joined the-AFC.com to discuss his outstanding 2019 season, learning from head coach Shota Arveladze and finally returning to football after an unwanted three-month break.
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Eleven clubs qualified for the 2020 AFC Champions League group stage as champions of their domestic league, but none did it with the level of dominance exhibited by Pakhtakor.
After finishing fifth, third and second in the previous three seasons, the Tashkent club lost just once on the way to their 12th domestic title, finishing 20 points clear of their nearest challengers PFC Lokomotiv.
In a campaign where Pakhtakor also won the Uzbekistan Cup and League Cup, Ćeran was the chief destroyer, scoring 23 times in 24 league matches and 37 in 39 in all competitions in a second-striker role behind Igor Sergeev, who bagged 17 league goals himself.
Sergeev is one of several Uzbekistan national team players at the club’s disposal, and Ćeran puts the successes of 2019 down to an abundance of quality personnel.
“There’s a big difference in our squad for 2018 to now,” said the rangy forward, who was an easy choice when the league Player of the Year award was handed out last December.
“We have changed a lot of players and a good group has been created, with a good chemistry between us. All of that led us to win the triple (of trophies). Individually, it was my best year so far.”
Ćeran’s dream season came at the age of 32, and only after a long journey which included stops in Israel, Azerbaijan, Macedonia and Saudi Arabia did he establish himself in Uzbekistan.
He’s one the league’s biggest stars now, but he admits he knew little about the country when he signed for Super League outfit FC Nasaf in early 2016.
“I didn’t know anything about Uzbekistan. Absolutely nothing,” he recalled. “I just remember the time when the great Rivaldo played with (Luiz Felipe) Scolari in Bunyodkor. That’s all I knew.
“During these four years I was pleasantly surprised both with the situation in the country and the situation in football. They have a good rating in Asia and good teams as well.
“I had no surprises, because I knew nothing about the country I was coming to.”
The move to Nasaf was a resounding success, producing 34 league goals in 48 matches, giving Ćeran taste of AFC Champions League football and facilitating a switch to Pakhtakor - a club which holds a legendary place in the sport’s history in the country - mid-way through the 2018 season.
That move also put Ćeran under the tutelage of former Georgian star Arveladze, a man who had once scored 37 goals in a season himself – in a 1997-98 Ajax Amsterdam side which included the likes of Michael Laudrup, the De Boer twins and Danny Blind, among others.
“I don’t remember too much (about Arveladzde’s playing career) but I heard about his successes and all the goals he scored,” Ćeran said. “Over 300 goals, it’s incredible.
“He has helped, of course, and gave me good advice about movement, opening space and finishing. He’s good person and a good coach.”
But even with prolific marksmen on both sides of the touchline, Pakhtakor’s ability to score goals at a rate of nearly three per league match last season, nearly double that of any other side in the country, was exceptional.
They started 2020 in an identical manner, with Ćeran netting four goals - including a hat-trick against Bukhara - in three successive league wins, and contributing to AFC Champions League victories against Shabab Al Ahli, in which he scored, and Shahr Khodrou.
It appeared to be the making of another memorable campaign for Ćeran and company, but the spread of COVID-19 suddenly halted their momentum in mid-March.
Without any matches to play, one of Asia’s hottest football teams were out in the cold, but Ćeran believes they will be ready to perform, even if they must do so in empty stadiums for the foreseeable future.
“When all of this started, with this coronavirus, I stayed in Uzbekistan hoping that everything would return to normal soon,” he explained.
“Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, so we organised ourselves in cooperation with the coach and his staff, and we started training at home. That work at home helped us to stay in shape, to maintain our work ethic and to be ready for the (team) trainings, as we are. We have been in normal training process for a month now and we are getting in shape day by day.
“it will be very difficult to play without an audience and without supporters. I follow the Bundesliga and it’s all a bit strange. Huge stadiums are empty and it’s not the same feeling as when there are a lot of people. It’s a huge difference, and I hope all this will end very soon.”
It’s a hope shared by fans the world over, but Uzbekistan’s return to competitive football does represent a small step towards normality and Ćeran hopes Pakhtakor will not only pick up where they left off, but go even further, particularly in the AFC Champions League.
“I’m convinced that Uzbek players are very talented, and they’re great workers,” he said.
“In Pakhtakor we have nine or 10 players who are members of the national team. That says that they are great players, and one of them that stands out is (Jaloliddin) Masharipov.
“We started great (in the ACL). We won two games at home, and I hope we’ll get another victory to secure our place in the knockout phase, and everything is possible.”
The Uzbekistan Super League resumes with two matches on Saturday. Pakhtakor will return to action with an away match against FC Sogdiana on Sunday, before meeting Bunyodkor five days later in Tashkent.
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