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Part of the side which became Asian champions in 2018, Khojiakbar Alijonov has returned to the AFC U23 Championship eager to help Uzbekistan retain their continental crown and carve out a piece of Olympic history.

The Central Asians memorably emerged victorious in China PR two years, recovering from an opening-day defeat to string together five consecutive wins and claim arguably their biggest international honour since their famous 1994 Asian Games triumph.

But while 1994 and 2018 produced feats well worth celebrating, one milestone the White Wolves have never achieved is to qualify for the Olympic Games football tournament; a goal they can accomplish by finishing in the top-three in the competition which begins on Wednesday.

Alijonov, who started in three of six matches and scored the winning goal against China in 2018, is one of six players from the title-winning squad to have returned for this year’s Finals in Thailand, and he arrived in the seaside city of Songkhla determined to defend Uzbekistan’s title, as well as chase an unprecedented place on the Olympic stage,

“That (2018) edition of the AFC U23 Championship was a very special tournament for us because we achieved the victory,” said Alijonov ahead of Uzbekistan’s opening match against Islamic Republic of Iran on Thursday.

“With this victory we made our parents and our fans very proud. The first and most important goal was to make our fans happy, and we were able to achieve the title, and it was really good for us.

“The last edition of the tournament, unfortunately, was not a qualifying tournament for the Olympics, but this time we will be doing our best to win it again, to defend our title and the next aim is to qualify for the Olympic Games, because our nation has never qualified before.

“The people (in Uzbekistan) have been waiting for a long time and we are trying to create history for our country in football.”

Since Uzbekistan’s breakthrough title in China, Alijonov has emerged as an essential ingredient for the nation’s dominant club outfit Pakhtakor – who won the league at a canter as part of a domestic double – as well as the national team, confirming himself as the country’s first-choice right-back since making his debut last June.

Riding high after the best year of his burgeoning professional career, the 22-year-old hopes to use those experiences to the Ljubinko Drulovic-led team’s benefit in the tournament to come.

“It was a really good year for me, for my club and also, now, the national team,” he declared.

“At Pakhtakor we achieved the goal of being champions of Uzbekistan and we also won the Uzbekistan Cup, and I made my debut for the national team, and I can say: it was amazing. The memories of 2019 are super.

“In (the previous) edition of the AFC U23 Championship, we played, and especially I played for the first time, and I have to say that I was a little bit younger than my teammates.

“Now, after two years, I am one of the older, more experienced players in the team and, sure, I have to lead the team because I’m an experienced player and member of the (senior) national team. That’s why I will try my best to help the team.”

While his family and friends are in the middle of a typically cold Tashkent winter, Alijonov finds himself in the heat and humidity of southern Thailand, where the average temperature is around 30 degrees higher at this time of year.



But while Central Asia freezes, Uzbekistan themselves are red-hot; racking up five-consecutive wins – including three against teams participating in the AFC U23 Championship – in friendlies played in both the United Arab Emirates and Thailand.

Alijonov, who scored in a 4-2 win over Iraq two weeks ago, believes his side’s pre-tournament form should dispel any concerns regarding a difficulty in adapting to the hot conditions.

“It’s true that it’s winter now in Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, but that’s why we’ve had two training camps in Dubai,” declared Alijonov

“The weather and climate there is very close to what we have here in Thailand and I think that preparation was really good for us.

“We also arrived in Thailand earlier to help us adapt, and I believe we’re ready.”