Uzbekistan returned to the top of the Group D standings on Tuesday as a convincing 2-0 victory over Palestine saw the Central Asians begin the second half of their FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023 Asian Qualifiers campaign in fine fashion.
Eldor Shomurodov’s fifth and sixth goals of the campaign laid the foundations for the success, one which has edged Uzbekistan ever nearer to an eighth AFC Asian Cup appearance and, in the process, undoubtedly helped ease painful memories of last week’s loss to fellow high-flyers Saudi Arabia.
The result leaves Vadim Abramov’s charges occupying pole position, one point ahead of the second-placed Saudis and a further four clear of a Palestine side whose hopes of progressing have been left hanging by a thread following a fourth successive match without a win.
Despite dominating early possession at an atmospheric Pakhtakor Stadium, Uzbekistan were forced to wait until the 15th minute for their first genuine opportunity, Palestine goalkeeper Rami Hamada comfortably gathering Shomurodov’s angled drive.
Just two minutes later, however, Uzbekistan went ahead. Khozhiakbar Alidzhanov’s curling cross was emphatically headed home at the far post by Shomurodov as the FC Rostov striker continued his rich vein of form.
Hamada then reacted well to repel a firm Shomurodov effort shortly after, before Ikromjon Alibaev saw his fierce 35th minute shot from 12 yards well saved by the visiting custodian.
With Palestine struggling to find a footing in the encounter, Hamada came to his side’s rescue once again when he somehow kept out a terrific Jaloliddin Masharipov strike that seemed destined to sneak in at the near post.
As the opening half drew to a close, Shomurodov could – and very possibly should – have made it two for Uzbekistan, but the usually lethal marksman fired inches wide of the target after being found by an overlapping Alidzhanov.
Palestine emerged clearly intent on restoring parity after the break, but it was to be Uzbekistan who were to find the net again, Shomurodov beating central defender Yaser Hamad to the ball and firing past Hamada to claim his second of the night on 58 minutes.
With Uzbekistan well and truly in the ascendancy, Hamada twice denying Alidzhanov and Palestine captain Abdellatif Bahdari reacting superbly to deny Shomurodov as the sharpshooter bore down on goal.
Uzbekistan’s two-goal hero Shomurodov left the field to rousing applause with 12 minutes remaining, but it mattered little to the home side as they weathered a late Palestinian rally – during which Mohammed Darwish brought a fine save out of Eldorbek Suyunov – to go first in a group where there may well be more twists and turns to come.
Uzbekistan will now not be in Asian Qualifiers action again until Matchday Eight on March 31, while Palestine will look to revive their hopes five days earlier when they host Singapore.