SYDNEY (AFP) – Goalkeeper Ignatiy Nesterov’s lightning late save spared Uzbekistan’s blushes as the 2011 semi-finalists beat North Korea 1-0 in a rain-hit Asian Cup clash on Saturday.
Nesterov saw little action in the Group B tie but he was alert enough to palm away Pak Kwang-Ryong’s powerful header just before the final whistle.
Man-of-the-match Igor Sergeev’s 62nd-minute header was the only score of a game hit by a mid-match downpour, but Uzbekistan deserved their win in Sydney.
Two-time Asian player of the year Server Djeparov set up the goal as Uzbekistan showed they could be ready for another assault on the Asian Cup’s latter stages.
“I’d like to thank our goalkeeper, it was a great save,” said Uzbek coach Mirdjalal Kasimov. “But it was a victory of the whole team, I’m happy with all my players.”
In a tepid first half, Timur Kapadze recovered from a nasty clash of heads while defending a corner before coming close at the other end minutes later.
The big midfielder saw his header come off the upright and into the grateful arms of North Korea’s Ri Myong-Guk, who later had to be alert to keep out Sanjar Tursunov.
North Korean striker Pak nodded his team’s best chance of the first period wide, and team-mate Jon Kwang-Ik was grateful to see his clearance go over the bar.
Steady rain turned torrential during half-time but it didn’t stop Uzbekistan from raising the tempo as Kapadze, Vitaliy Denisov and Djeparov all had sight of goal.
And it was captain Djeparov who created Uzbekistan’s opener, lofting a cross for Sergeev to leap and nod past the stranded Ri in the North Korean goal.
Sergeev could have added a second from substitute Sardor Rashidov’s cross, and Tursunov drew a point-blank save from Ri as the Uzbeks pressed until the final whistle.
In the final seconds, Pak would have rescued a point for North Korea with his header from a corner, if not for the reflexes of the diving Nesterov.
“I really think it was unfortunate, but the result is the result,” said North Korea’s coach Jo Tong-Sop, when asked about Pak’s late effort.
“If we make better chances and attack much more than tonight, we’ll have a better chance.”
The result sets back North Korea’s hopes of progressing from the group stage for the first time since 1980, when they finished fourth.
But Uzbekistan will have high hopes of reaching the knock-outs for the fourth time in a row, with further Group B games to come against China and Saudi Arabia.