Doha: Odil Akhmedov and Server Djeparov shattered Qatari dreams with second-half goals to hand Uzbekistan a 2-0 win over the below-par hosts in the opening game of the Asian Cup on Friday.
Central defender Akhmedov bagged the first goal of the tournament when he sent a looping 30-yard shot crashing off the underside of the bar and into the net in the 58th minute.
Captain Djeparov sealed the win 18 minutes later when he made the most of a sloppy back pass by Ibrahim Majed, firing the ball past goalkeeper Qasem Burhan.
The football festival, featuring the region’s top 16 teams, runs for three weeks up to the final on January 29 with the opening match played at the Khalifa Stadium, the 40,000-capacity jewel in Qatar’s footballing crown.
And the fans turned out en masse for the near sell-out Group A game as the tiny country looks to prove itself after being controversially awarded the 2022 World Cup.
“It was a difficult match for us against the home team and I’m very sorry for the Qatar people, but this is the game,” said Uzbek coach Vadim Abramov.
“But I’m happy for Uzbekistan. I think we were the better team. “
Qatar came into the game with plenty to prove -- their previous best Asian Cup showing was a quarter-final exit at the hands of China in 2000.
In their six other appearances -- including one as hosts in 1988 -- they have failed to progress beyond the group phase.
Coach Bruno Metsu was bitterly disappointed at how poorly they played.
“Today was a very bad day for our team. We wanted to play a good game for the people of Qatar, but we played a very bad game,” said the Frenchman.
“I’m sorry for the fans and everyone because they wanted us to give the best and today we did not not. I hope we can get better.”
The hosts signalled their intentions early on with Brazil-born midfielder Fabio Cesar getting the first chance of the game, steering a header wide after a probing cross by Hussain Yaser.
But the pressure got to them and they gave the Uzbeks too much space with Alexander Geynrikh breaking free of his marker to rattle the post barely a minute later.
The Qatari back line was ragged and Geynrikh again burst free to find Jasur Khasanov in the six-yard box, with the speedy winger’s shot forcing a scrambled save from Burhan.
Uzbekistan may not have made their Asian Cup debut until 1996, but they have improved with each participation.
Eliminated in the group phase on their competition debut 15 years ago, the Central Asian heavyweights suffered the same fate four years later but have since reached the quarter-finals at successive tournaments.
Playing in perfect 22 degrees Celsius conditions, they displayed their emerging pedigree.
Khasanov should have put them in front on 18 minutes when he found himself in acres of space, only to take a touch too much and angle his shot wide of the post.
Uzbekistan were dominating possession and Qatar barely got a look in until seven minutes before half-time when Cesar curled a left-footed freekick round the wall and onto the post.
It sparked them into life and they came out after the break fired up with Hussain having a glorious chance to break the deadlock when the ball fell to him in the box, but his shot was weak and easily cleared.
It got the crowd going but they were soon silenced when Akhmedov smashed in his goal. And when Djeparov got the second thousands started flocking home, leaving the stadium half-empty for an embarrassing end to the game.
The other two Group A teams, China and Kuwait, face each other on Saturday.