On the eve of a crucial World Cup qualifying match at home against South Korea, Uzbekistan head coach Samvel Babayan on Monday was busy defending himself over recent roster decisions. Uzbekistan will host South Korea at Bunyodkor Stadium in Tashkent at 8 p.m. Tuesday local time. It's the final match for both nations in Group A of the last Asian qualifying round for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
With only the top two teams earning automatic berths and the third-place team getting a chance to compete in playoffs, Uzbekistan are sitting in fourth place. They and Syria are tied at 12 points, two back of South Korea, but Syria have the goal difference edge.
We'll play an extremely important match in the history of Uzbekistan football," Babayan said at a pre-match press conference at Bunyodkor Stadium. "We'll try to get a good result with a strong performance."
Uzbekistan would have been in a much better position had they not been stunned by underdogs China last Thursday. A win would have put the Central Asian nation in second place, two up on South Korea, but the 1-0 loss has put Babayan on the hot seat instead.
"We had a disappointing result against China, we didn’t deserve to lose frankly speaking. and there were serious problems with officiating," he said. "But I told our players that we'll have our opportunity and that we shouldn't hang our heads."
Reporters then peppered Babayan with questions about his lineup decisions. One asked the coach why he kept using forward Igor Sergeev, who hasn't scored in the current qualifying round.
"In modern football, forwards also have to take on defensive roles, and I use players who can carry out such tasks," he said. "I thought he deserved a chance to play."
Asked what he thought a national football head coach is supposed to be, Babayan, "I've been asked the same question at three press conferences before and I've given the same answer. I think I deserve to be the head coach of the national team."
The coach was also pressed to explain the absence of midfielder Sardor Rashidov against China, and said "a strange thing" occurred.
"I can't tell you everything, but he had food poisoning that is why I couldn't play him," the coach said.
To finish in second place alone, Uzbekistan must defeat South Korea and hope Syria won't beat Iran in their final match on the same day.