Big Phil's men are in a league of their own

Phase one of Bunyodkor’s plans for world domination is well underway. Mwah ha ha ha ha…

Ahem, yes. Right, so the new, slimmer (and probably not better) Uzbek Oliy League kicked off a fortnight ago, with just 12 teams instead of 14 battling it out for third place behind Luis Felipe Scolari’s Bunyodkor and their nearest rivals (and NMTB is applying that appellation loosely) Pakhtakor.

The sight of Phil’s side at the summit is a familiar one; not just in the Oliy League, but also in the second tier, which his reserves won last year as well.

Bunyodkor’s domination (and a runners-up spot for Mash'al Mubarek’s understudies) meant no one was promoted from the First Division. Nevertheless, the UFF confirmed the relegation of top flight basement boys FJ Buxoro and bottom club Sogdiana Jizak, who sound like one of those mucky videos NMTB found in its dad’s sock draw when it was 15. (Sorry, dad.)

"This is how many millions of pounds you'll get if you score the winner"

So there’ll be only 14 sides instead of the usual full constitution of 16. If that probable trend continues, in a few years’ time they’ll only be Bunyodkor and Pakhtakor in the Oliy League, with everyone else in a massive second division. (Although Phil’s reserves have lost their opening two games of the season, so things could be interesting, briefly, in 2010.)

It’ll be like that two-team competition on the Scilly Isles, only with slightly less quality.

Last season was something of a doddle for Phil’s side, whom few would disagree are something of a promotional tool for a regime with a “questionable” human rights record.

The Swallows clocked up almost three goals per game in 2009, with their veteran forward and captain Rivaldo helping himself to 20 of those. He also hit the opener in the Tashkent derby versus Pakhtakor a week last Sunday, which they won 2-1 (see the goals here and here). And yes, for Bunyodkor’s second that is the Brazilian bombing down the left-wing for the assist.

And the answer to your next question is no, only one of those draws came against Pakhtakor.

Phil threw something of a strop upon discovering the top two were meeting on the opening day of the season, insisting that it doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world.

He was probably only perturbed at facing his neighbours before his team had reach their peak physical condition, and therefore potentially putting a dent in their hopes of winning every game this year.

And for his moan this week (maybe this could become a regular NMTB feature?), Phil was lamenting the poor quality of the pitch in Bekabad, although that one’s perhaps justified when you look at the sandpit the game was played on, and arguably this is going to be the biggest impediment to achieving 28 straight victories.

That Bunyodkor will win the league is academic; if Miodrag Radulović’s Pakhtakor are top of the table come the end of the season then the Montenegrin should be bequeathed the Uzbek presidency (however we all know that position will go to the incumbent numero uno’s daughter and purported owner of Bunyodkor Gulnara Karimova).

Pakhtakor were Uzbekistan’s Bunyodkor before Bunyodkor, and were by far and away Uzbekistan’s most successful side prior to the Creators’ err, creation five years ago.

They’d won the previous six league titles until a bottomless pit of money accrued from the country’s natural resources fuelled their rival’s rapid ascent and allowed them be usurped as Central Asia’s best team.

Even the cup is boring, if not the result.

It’s Bunyodkor’s turn this year.

Mission ‘Conquer Uzbekistan’ almost accomplished, phase two is the Champions League, which Bunyodkor crashed out of at the quarterfinal stage last year to the eventual winners Pohang Steelers from South Korea.

So to have a serious crack at the competition in 2010, Phil has strengthened in the off-season, and what better place to do your shopping than at the Asian Champions League winners? Well, the European Champions League winners probably, although Samuel Eto’o wasn’t keen on relocating to Tashkent when they put in a call to Barcelona in 2008.

Bunyodkor lost 5-4 on aggregate to the Koreans, so Phil waved his chequebook at the two primary protagonists culpable for that defeat: Brazilian Denilson (not that one, or that one) and Macedonia international Stevica Ristić, and brought both to Uzbekistan.

In the group stages of the competition this year they’ve been paired with the 2009 runners-up Al-Ittihad, whom they met in the first game, which afforded Phil the perfect opportunity to send out a warning to Pohnang and his other rivals for the trophy.

And Bunyodkor certainly did just that. A 3-0 victory against the Saudi Arabians has underlined the Uzbek’s Champions League credentials and, after picking up a win in their second match against Al-Wahda of the UAE, they look as though they could be in with a chance of an appearance in the Tokyo final.

Maybe then Phil will begin to justify that £12m-a-year salary.

All that’s missing is a marquee signing. Yes, Rivaldo’s arrival was something of a coup, but he isn't the Rivaldo of Barça.

That could change, mind.

"A million a minute, you say...?"

Phil is too busy to deal with transfers, or so he says. Well somebody’s got to book those holidays to Dubai – the club have been on two this year already – so he’s redefined Rivaldo’s role as a player/captain/director of football.

The former Deportivo, Barcelona and AC Milan star now helps identify potential signings and even brokers deals for his boss while Scolari trawls the internet for some cracking last-minute deals.

Expect the 2002 Brazilian World Cup-winning team to arrive in Tashkent soon. Wasn’t Kaká in that squad?

That’s all that’s missing from his side, a big name; somebody in their prime that will actually make people sit up and take notice of Bunyodkor, and not just a few aging South Americans eyeing one last pay cheque.

Robinho would’ve been a good signing (obviously). He’s a Brazilian at the peak of his career, and he’d probably jump at the chance of not physically exerting himself while still managing to score a hatful of goals.

At the weekend it’s reported that Phil tabled a bid of £10 million for Fiorentina’s Adrian Mutu. Arguably the midfield is where he could perhaps do with strengthening, yet the Romanian’s inclusion would be akin to Wayne Rooney joining Crawley Town in the Blue Square Premier.

Essentially, you’d require a player whom would be willing to move solely for the money; or “for the project”, as oft the justification in these cases.

There have been some big names in Tashkent though. The UFF has vowed to lure a world-class player to Central Asia on an annual basis to increase the game’s popularity. Last year’s visitor was that well-known football philanthropist Cristiano Ronaldo, who jetted in to hold a training session and stand about posing for photographs in a dressing gown for a bit.

He probably got paid a fortune for that; it’s rumoured Cesc Fàbregas was given £700,000 in 2008 for his fleeting visit.

Whether or not Phil obtains his perfect 28 in the Oliy League remains to be seen, but it’s the Champions League that is his number one priority this year, and NMTB wouldn’t bet against them achieving phase two this season; they're certainly among the favourites.

And then what of their third step, the UFF (under the instruction of the government) decamping from the AFC to join UEFA like their Central Asia brethren Kazakhstan did in 2002?

It could just happen…

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