Uzbekistan fends off Azkals to go atop of WCQ group

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By Kevin Estrada

TASHKENT--A misfiring Uzbekistan side staved off a gallant defensive stand by the Philippines with the hosts only winning the match by the slimmest of margins in a joint World Cup-Asian Cup Qualifier, 1-0 at the Bunyodkor Stadium on a Maundy Thursday night.

A back header by defender Anzur Ismailov off substitute Alexander Geynrikh at the hour mark grabbed all three points for Samvel Babayan, who moved on top of Group F with 18 points with their sixth consecutive win, two ahead of North Korea, which had a bye.

Neil Etheridge's near-perfect performance between the sticks was not enough for the undermanned Azkals, who remained stuck with seven points in seven matches, and went down to fourth on the group after Bahrain defeted Yemen in Manama, 3-0 in the other match.

With a side missing the likes of Phil Younghusband and Stephan Schrock to injuries, Misagh Bahadoran and Manny Ott to suspensions, and Jerry Lucena to retirement, Thomas Dooley opted to go 4-2-3-1 with Henan's Javier Patino being the lone center forward and Luke Woodland getting the nod at holding midfield alongside Martin Steuble.

Uzbekistan showed why they are 61 places above Dooley's side in the FIFA Rankings with their first chance two minutes from the opening whistle in which Egor Krimets' header from a free kick went just wide.

That did not stop them continuing peppering Philippine territory, as five minutes later Igor Sergeev and Server Djeparov came close but found Etheridge  and the backline led by Juani Guirado a tough nut to crack.

Controversy erupted with just ten minutes in with OJ Porteria being sent to showers immediately by Ryuji Sato on a studs up tackle on Krimets, which led to the Azkals going down to ten men for the rest of the match.

However, the Walsall netmider was up to the task for the rest of the half, enduring various Uzbek attacks by Sergeev, Odil Akhmedov and Sardor Rashidov to keep the match goalless at the half.

Second half was the same story as the first 45, with the Uzbek attack ended up on Etheridge's palms, frustrating the 34,000-strong crowd inside a modern yet loud cathedral of Central Asian football.

Alexander Geynrikh's entrance in the 57th minute proved talismanic, as he turned provider three minutes later with a cross off a short free kick that found the back of Ismailov's head and into the right corner that beats the outstretched hands of the former Fulham product that send the Bunyodkor Stadium into joyous delirium.

Although misfiring, the defense held firm for the rest of the match to do a double over their victims, while remaining unbeaten at home in the second round of the qualifying.

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