Ljubinko Drulovic sets champions Uzbekistan dual target

The Uzbeks impressed two years ago on the way to their first Asian title at national level since claiming the gold medal at the 1994 Asian Games with a 2-1 victory over Vietnam in snow-covered Changzhou.

However, Drulovic, who took over as head coach at the start of 2019 after Ravshan Khaydarov led the country to the title in 2018,and his team will experience very different conditions in Thailand next month.

“We know that it will be very difficult to win the AFC U23 Championship, and to repeat the success from 2018 will be even harder,” said the Serb coach, who previously led Macedonia’s senior national side.

“To replicate that success we need to be at an extremely high level because the competition is extremely strong. But that can be a great reason for us to make history.”

Uzbekistan will face a stiff challenge right from the start of their quest for the 2020 title after being drawn in Group C alongside Korea Republic, China PR and Islamic Republic of Iran in one of the most eye-catching line-ups of the tournament.

Despite the obstacles that lie ahead, Drulovic is confident his team can be competitive once again.

“Our group is very strong, perhaps the strongest,” he told the-AFC.com. “All the teams are extremely strong and we respect them, but we believe we can fight them equally for first place in the group.

“It is true Uzbekistan has never qualified for the Olympics or the FIFA World Cup, but we don’t feel pressure, just the obligation to give our best to Uzbekistan. We expect great support from our fans to make history together.”

While the sport continues to grow and prosper in the country, Drulovic knows securing a ticket for Tokyo 2020 – the top three finishers at the 2020 AFC U23 Championship are guaranteed a spot at next year’s Olympiad – would have a huge positive impact on the game.

“Qualifying for the Olympic Games can bring even more popularity to football in Uzbekistan, because it would be a historical success,” he said. “It would help improve conditions and bring greater investment into football.”

Uzbekistan’s victory in China in 2018 was not only historic, it laid down the foundations for the side that Drulovic will lead in Thailand in January.

Midfielder Jasurbek Yakhshiboev’s goals were instrumental in Uzbekistan’s run to the final and he remains eligible to play in the U23 team, as do other key performers such as Islom Kobilov and Bobir Abdixolikov.

“We know we need to be as well prepared as possible in all aspects of our game,” said Drulovic. “We have eight players who won the AFC U23 Championship two years ago, so their experience can mean a lot to us as we look to achieve our goal in Thailand.”

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