By Tom Danicek
On the contemporary Asian football scene, there exists almost unequivocal consensus about whether to count on one striker or a pair of them. The former option is clearly more popular one, as you could really tell at first sight. Only Oman had long been a distinctive exception, but it took just one significant injury to the established defensive line right before the Asian Cup and even Paul Le Guen succumbed.
As it happens, though, one popular formation doesn’t translate into one popular type of striker. And so in Asia, like literally everywhere on this planet, you come across various preferences.
On one hand, you have Younis Mahmoud or Nasser Al Shamrani, rather old-fashioned and somewhat controversial figures of high symbolic value and psychological importance. On the other one, you have sides like Alain Perrin’s China, where ‘being a striker’ means merely ‘being the furthest positioned player’, or Mahdi Ali’s UAE, placing mobility and flexibility above anything else.
The most peculiar case of late, however, could be that of Mirjalol Qosimov’s Uzbekistan.
The most difficult job of all
Times are changing in Uzbekistan, there’s no discussion about that. At the 2015 Asian Cup, the legendary Server Djeparov didn’t appear to be untouchable for the first time in ages, and that’s about as telling a sign as it gets. Accordingly, the race for what used to be Maksim Shatskikh’s main position may be reaching its final stage. Or at least should be.
The Dynamo Kyiv legend hasn’t started for the national team since November 2011 (excluding his own farewell match in May 2014), which was, coincidentally or not, also the very month that saw the last ever strike from another iconic Uzbek forward, Aleksandr Geynrikh. That signals one huge issue: for quite some time now, the White Wolves have been struggling on their quest to find an utterly reliable source of goals.
Igor Sergeev, Bahodir Nasimov, Vokhid Shodiev, Navruzbek Olimov, Farhod Tadjiyev, Ivan Nagaev – they all have at some point of the year 2014 tried to step in and make a case for themselves in order to claim the prestigious position. On Friday, even the 29-year-old Zokhir Kuziboyev joined the list through his efforts against South Korea.
And he didn’t fare badly, no. After all, he was the man who equalised and set the final scoreline (1:1), albeit not in the most convincing fashion. Anyway, it’s still rather unlikely Kuziboyev will ever top Qosimov’s pecking order, with the coach’s requirements being just too delicate. And not only for Kuziboyev; for virtually anybody with an Uzbek passport, as a matter of fact.
You see, it occurs to me that the job description for an Uzbek striker doesn’t go much further beyond this: “Please, be around the penalty area and bang in one goal after another. Thanks.” In other words, an Uzbek No. 9 is very much the equivalent of a lone ranger on the Wild West; no one would dare to join forces with him, unless he happens to be in the same saloon, in the middle of an epic uproar. Unless he feels an urgent need.
For instance, Server Djeparov will always rather cooperate with both wingers, clearly rating a nice diagonal pass above the vertical one. Sardor Rashidov, for a change, embodies poor man’s Cristiano Ronaldo; a winger-cum-striker who frequently makes chances/goals on his own and for himself. And finally, Odil Ahmedov is also an avid long-distance shooter with no particular interest in one-twos or anything.
An Uzbek striker in 4-2-3-1 formation is therefore called in action only sporadically, but when the time arrives he’s expected to showcase his own genius: perfect anticipation, an ability to find his header in any circumstances, or at least knock down the ball (mostly a cross from the left) for his teammate. He’s barely asked to hold the ball upfront for somebody; he instead needs to work in a highly instinctive manner, in the blink of an eye.
The one player who seems to more or less fit the bill is Igor Sergeev, now away on his duty with the Olympic squad. He reads the game well and promises to be that proverbial ‘fox in the box’ for Uzbekistan. But we saw at the Asian Cup that the 21-year-old is, quite naturally, yet to be a consistent and utterly reliable sniper. Hence, Mirjalol Qosimov shall not rush things at the moment. He must be very patient with Sergeev, which doesn’t seem to be a given.
Otherwise, his Uzbekistan side is destined to be just shuffling around and relying heavily on only one capable difference-maker (Rashidov) for yet another cycle. And that’d be frustrating, wouldn’t it?
Soria leaves a sore spot behind
The timing is everything, they often say, and Sebastián Soria knows that now.
As recently as in October 2014, when he celebrated his 100th cap, a true all-time great for his adopted country and possibly the only naturalized foreigner to ever win over every single Qatari, Soria was considered to be virtually undroppable.
However, very soon afterwards, an unlucky injury happened and that was basically it for the distinguished national hero. Even without their talismanic striker, Qatar succeeded at the 2014 Gulf Cup, and while another formerly injured star Khalfan Ibrahim returned at least for the Asian Cup, Soria himself did not. There, the new era has officially begun.
Albeit the 31-year-old continues to be a sharp shooter for Lekhwiya, having registered three goals in his first three league starts this month, Djamel Belmadi clearly wants something different; someone with blank pages to fill and, um, blanks to shoot. Someone like Mohammed Muntari, a Ghana-born forward, who’s produced 11 shots since the Asian Cup kick-off, yet only two of them found their way on target and none of them was ruthless enough to proceed towards the net.
That’s not to say Muntari is completely useless, mind you, because he’s not. In fact, the El Jaish mainstay is among those rare strikers who love to lurk around the offside line without actually being caught offside every other time. Seriously, when it comes to making runs behind defenders, Muntari would barely find any real competition across the Qatari Stars League, if not the whole region. And that’s one valuable attribute. Or, you know, it sure would be – if only he was a better finisher on top of that.
Despite this fundamental weakness, though, Djamel Belmadi has utter confidence in Muntari’s ability. The Kumasi’s man hasn’t missed out on the starting spot for all five matches since his first December callup. So what more does he have to offer? Is he a good fit in any other way?
Not really. Muntari perhaps wouldn’t make for a terrible hold-up striker, but then again, there’s no such role in the current Qatari national team. Belmadi’s approach is way too direct, leaving hardly any room for that.
So how about Muntari’s willingness to engage deeper down the pitch, to help start up a swift attacking move? Again, it’s absent. On Thursday, in a friendly against Algeria, Ismaeel Mohammed, starting right wing in place of Al Haidos, tried to involve Muntari in a quick give-and-go twice inside the first 10 minutes – and on both occasions, Muntari was visibly stunned by the very idea, ultimately unable to connect with Mohammed.
Again, Muntari is not a bad player, that’s not my point by any means. But he’s not a good bet for the future Qatari striker either. Not at this point anyway, when the rest of the team isn’t really built to accommodate him.
Among preferred central midfielders, you won’t find a single one who’d gladly look for a vertical pass. And with that, as well as missing chemistry between Muntari and any other offensive player (Khalfan Ibrahim, for instance, has so far spent only 93 minutes with him on the pitch); the naturalized attacker will always be feeding off scraps. Which may not be a big problem with some clinical finisher upfront (say Boualem Khoukhi), but it certainly is with a striker who apparently needs gazillion chances for one miserable goal.