In 2011, a talented player from Uzbekistan joined Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala on loan. The 23-year-old midfielder had been one of the top players with Pakhtakor Tashkent for years, as well as impressing with the Uzbekistan national team as they reached the semifinals of the Asian Cup. This midfielder would go on to win countless awards, leagues, and, perhaps most impressive, Player of the Season on an Anzhi Makhachkala team that included the legendary Samuel Eto’o and Roberto Carlos.
That player was Odil Ahmedov, one of the greatest Uzbek players to play the game. Ahmedov was capped 108 times for Uzbekistan, third on the country’s all-time list. He won the country’s Player of the Year award six times, something no other player has done. However, what may be Ahmedov’s most important accomplishment is increasing the flow of players from Uzbekistan to Russia.
Six years after Ahmedov’s transfer, another talented player, Eldor Shomurodov, moved to Russian side FK Rostov. Probably the most well-known Uzbek player in the world, Shomurodov later moved to the Serie A, where he currently features for historic side AS Roma (although probably not for much longer).
Now, roughly half a dozen players from Uzbekistan currently feature in Russia’s top two flights. One of them in particular has the capability to be a key player in the coming years: Umarali Rakhmonaliev.
CM Umarali Rakhmonaliev, 19, Rubin Kazan
Rakhmonaliev was born in 2003 and joined the academy of Bunyodkor Tashkent at a young age. Bunyodkor’s claim to fame is that they nearly signed Ahmedov’s future teammate Samuel Eto’o and that they DID sign Brazil legend Rivaldo, who unsurprisingly scored regularly. Still, they’ve won the second most league titles in Uzbekistan and have impressed in the Asian Champions League.
Rakhmonaliev was given the nickname “Kante” in the Bunyodkor academy, after the famously energetic France and Chelsea midfielder. Shortly before turning 18, Rakhmonaliev debuted in the first team in a 2-0 victory over Metallurg Bekabad. He would make just six appearances in his debut season. Last season, however, everything changed — Rakhmonaliev went from bench option to undroppable.
Rakhmonaliev started 20 of Bunyodkor’s 26 games and played ninety minutes in all but two of those starts. He only missed five league games and Bunyodkor were winless in those five matches, losing four of them. He scored six goals as a midfielder and three of them were game-winners, including a brace against league winners Pakhtakor.
Russian side Rubin Kazan, recently relegated to the second tier, jumped at the chance to sign Rakhmonaliev. This January his contract with Bunyodkor expired and he made the move to Kazan, who currently sit third in the league — leaving them in contention for promotion.
This move could be huge for Rakhmonaliev’s career. If Kazan earns promotion, he’ll be in the top flight of a European league. He also has access to quality facilities and staff and can learn from the best: Euro 2012 sensation and Russian legend Alan Dzagoev can improve Rakhmonaliev’s play and help him adjust to Russian soccer.
Rakhmonaliev is, in his own (translated) words, a number six by trade but also a number eight. Number six is a defensive midfielder, sitting between the midfield and defense. A number eight is more of a box-to-box midfielder: a midfielder expected to have a lot of stamina and who can contribute on both offense and defense.
I believe Rakhmonaliev is better as a number eight. He’s physical and can win the ball back, making him a valuable asset on defense. Rakhmonaliev also can read the field well, regularly intercepting passes and initiating counterattacks. His offensive contributions are the main reason he should play as an eight. He’s fast, strong, a good passer, and he can shoot. From anywhere.
There are two big tournaments that Rakhmonaliev could feature in this season. The first is the AFC U20 Asian Cup, where all of Asia’s best players under the age of 20 will feature. Uzbekistan qualifies automatically as hosts and Rakhmonaliev should get a chance to shine in midfield. The second tournament is more ambitious — the main Asian Cup, where the likes of Son Heung-min and Mehdi Taremi will feature.
The Asian Cup was going to be held in China until they canceled as part of their zero-COVID policy. Now it’s in Qatar (again) and reportedly may be pushed back (again) until early 2024. While he’s never played at senior level, the additional time may help Rakhmonaliev make the squad if he hits the ground running in Kazan.
Either way, it’s only a matter of time before Rakhmonaliev is like Ahmedov — performing for Uzbekistan on the biggest stage.
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