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Tamirlan Kozubaev at a training session in Jizzakh, Uzbekistan, before his side’s AFC Cup inter-zone semi-final against PFC Sogdiana Jizzakh. Photo: Eastern SC

AFC Cup: call of the East lured defender Kozubaev to Hong Kong club’s cause

  • The prospect of a new challenge with ambitious club proved too hard for Tamirlan Kozubaev to resist
  • Eastern Long Lions face PFC Sogdiana Jizzakh in Uzbekistan on Tuesday in their Inter-Zone semi-final

Eastern Long Lions defender Tamirlan Kozubaev said it was the prospect of a new challenge with an ambitious club that persuaded him to swap Central Asia for East Asia, ahead of the Hong Kong club’s AFC Cup campaign.

The much-travelled centre-back, who was most recently in Kazakhstan but has also played his club football in Russia, Serbia, Lithuania, Malaysia, Indonesia and Kyrgystan, helped Eastern win both of their group stage games in June to advance to the competition’s knockout rounds for the first time.

Next up are Uzbekistan side PFC Sogdiana Jizzakh in the Inter-Zone semi-final on Tuesday, with Roberto Losada’s team just two games away from the continental final.

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“When I got the offer to join Eastern I realised this was a team that has set big targets for itself which I wanted to be part of,” Kozubaev said.

“The team were playing in the AFC Cup and had previously played in the AFC Champions League so, with Hong Kong teams also in the AFC Champions League every year, the move offered me a new challenge and the chance of a good experience in a nice city.”

Having been eliminated at the group stage in 2021, finishing behind fellow Hong Kong side Lee Man FC, Eastern got their revenge this time round as they kicked off their campaign in the Thai city of Buriram with a 3-1 win over their domestic rivals, in which Spanish forward Victor Bertomeu scored twice.

Bertomeu added another when Eastern followed up that victory by beating Taiwan’s Tainan City FC by the same scoreline, meaning Kozubaev, who was part of Kyrgyzstan side FC Dordoi’s 2017 group stage campaign, also ensured he would appear in the latter stages of the tournament for the first time.

Eastern Long Lions warm up before a training session in Jizzakh, Uzbekistan, ahead of their AFC Cup inter-zone semi-final against PFC Sogdiana Jizzakh. Photo: Eastern SC

“First of all, I was very happy to be part of the AFC Cup again, but it was an even happier experience for me this time as I was unable to qualify from the group stage previously,” the 28-year-old said.

“The win over Lee Man was very important because we had some problems before this game and it gave us more confidence that we could reach the next stage.

“Bertomeu has, of course, been important to us. It’s his job to score the goals, but he is also a quality player and I hope he can continue to impress in the AFC Cup.”

The East Zone champions now face their toughest challenge yet with a trip to Uzbekistan to take on debutants who have been hugely impressive in their maiden continental campaign.

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Sogdiana won all their matches in the group stage, before storming to a 4-0 victory over Tajikistan’s FC Khujand in the Central Zonal final. And while the Uzbek Super League side may be making their continental bow, they boast a wealth of experience within their squad.

Former national team player Vitaliy Denisov appeared in numerous Uefa Europa League campaigns during spells with Dnipro in Ukraine and Lokomotiv Moscow in Russia, while Jasur Khasanov has been an AFC Champions League regular since the mid-2000s.

But although the trip to Uzbekistan may be uncharted territory for Eastern, Kozubaev’s know-how of football in Central Asia may be able to offer some valuable insight into the task that awaits.

“Uzbek teams have been very strong at the AFC Champions League level for many years so it will be an interesting game and a good challenge for us,” he said.

“Sogdiana have big-name players with a lot of experience and they will set an example for the other players to follow. I think this is why the team has reached high places.

“I’ll give some advice to my teammates on our opponents and I hope this will be able to help us [progress further]. As I said earlier, we are aiming big and want to win every game.”

Eastern Long Lions coach Roberto Losada at a training session in Jizzakh, Uzbekistan, ahead of his side’s AFC Cup inter-zone semi-final against PFC Sogdiana Jizzakh. Photo: Eastern SC

Unlike the preparation for the centralised group stage in June, when Eastern were severely lacking match practice having not played a competitive game since January 1, things have been much smoother this time round.

Domestic football returned to Hong Kong last week after a Covid-19 enforced hiatus, with Eastern kicking off their Hong Kong Premier League campaign with a goalless draw against Wofoo Tai Po on August 27.

Just two days later, Eastern travelled to Uzbekistan, via South Korea, arriving in Jizzakh eight days before the Inter-Zone semi-final.

“It was a hard time without football as we had to train on the beach and train alone in parks, so everyone was so hungry for games to return,” Kozubaev said. “When we got back on the pitch the whole team was so happy as it’s very important to play regular competitive games.”