Monday, September 09, 2013

Waning Seconds: The AFC Playoff Picture

Okay, show of hands for how many people found this website by googling "AFC Playoff Picture" after the first weekend of the NFL season.

That's what I thought.

Still, you should stick around, because if there's one thing American sports fans like, it's a winner-take-all battle for supremacy: like the Superbowl, or the Spanish-American War.

On Tuesday it will be Jordan versus Uzbekistan live from Takshent, Uzbekistan...wait...wait...they're playing soccer...okay, now all the American football fans are gone.
Uzbekistan draw in Jordan in first leg
Credit: AFP via FIFA
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Still, that's okay because it should be a thrilling game in Takshent where two teams who have never reached this stage of the competition battle for a spot in the intercontinental final four play in games. Having drawn 1-1 in Amman, it's still anybodies match, but Uzbekistan will be considered slight favorites due to the away goal scored by Server Djeperov, the Korean based national team captain.

For those who aren't up to date on their Uzbeki soccer stars. Djeperov won the Asian player of the year award in 2008 and has been a fixture of the national side since 2006. While Uzbekistan gets a lot of (justly deserved) credit for being a team of young talents, Djeperov remains the group's obvious leader. And while he has done a fine job of bridging the gap to younger talents like forward Bahodir Nasimov, midfielders Odil Ahmedov and Sanzhar Tursunov and defenders Vitaly Denisov and Islom Tuktakhodjaev, there's a long way to go before the new guys can do it by themselves.

The Uzbek's biggest question mark heading into the home leg is goalie Murod Zukhurov who will be making just his fourth appearance for the national team at age 30. Long slotted behind Ignatiy Nesterov, Zurkhov has a chance to make a name for himself in the biggest way by pitching a clean sheet against Jordan and setting up a final push against whatever team CONMEBOL offers up.

Of course, shutting out the The Chivalrous (as Al-Nashama translates to) may be easier said than done. Needing at least a 2-2 draw to move forward automatically, Jordan will be throwing everything they have at the White Wolves (including the kitchen sink and maybe even Prince Ali bin al Hussein's private jet--the one they flew to Uzbekistan).

That's a happy Deeb
Better than jets and kitchen sinks will be the Jordanian forwards: Abdallah Deeb has been their most potent scoring option for the better part of the last six years, and at 26 is still the youngest regular forward on the team. But the reason Jordan's going to Uzbekistan with everything to play for is young midfielder Mossab al-Laham, who recently completed a one million dollar transfer to Saudi Arabia's SC Najran. At 22 (and already with 2 goals in just 10 caps), al-Laham should be a vital portion of Jordan's attack for a long time to come.

Al-Laham should keep learning his skills from team captain Amer Deeb, whose 123 caps are topped only by keeper Amer "The Whale" Shafia. And though the team has a relatively new manager in Hossam Hassan, you could hardly ask for a better guide to the world's brightest stage than Egypt's all-time leading goal scorer (especially since said leading goal-scorer supported Hosni Mubarak and probably ought to stay out of Egypt for a little while longer).

So, to sum up. Uzbekistan needs to keep the score low and will trust a rookie keeper to do it; Jordan needs a couple goals for sure and have experience both up top and in back to make it happen. And shoddy though the Jordanian's road record has been (0-4 in Group 4 play), the Uzbek's weren't lights out at home either (dropping 0-1 to Iran when direct qualification was almost within reach).

Much as I've been beating the drum of Uzbekistan as a dark horse special, I've got a bad feeling for the White Wolves and think that Jordan may be on the verge of springing a major upset. The beautiful thing is, the game is not in my mind it's on the pitch, so however it turns out, it should be exciting.

Oh and just in case you're an American who stuck it out this long waiting for the subject to change: take the Broncos, and Patriots for the bye, plus the Texans, Bengals, Steelers and miracle Chiefs--with the Broncs going to the Super Bowl...though unless Abdullah Deeb signs on to catch Peyton Manning's passes, I'm not that interested.

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