The pressure is well and truly on...
Just eight years ago, a revitalized Ronaldo shot Brazil to World Cup glory in Yokohama to give Luiz Felipe Scolari the best moment of his lengthy career. On Wednesday night however, ‘Big Phil’ could suffer the ignominy of crashing out of the Asian Champions League at the first hurdle with wealthy Bunyodkor of Uzbekistan.
It would be a shock and coming just 14 months after getting the boot from Stamford Bridge it would see the Brazilian's reputation take something of a battering.
When Scolari pitched up in Uzbekistan last summer, it wasn’t as much of a surprise as was made out. Bunyodkor may not be a household name but the money that the club has to spend rivals that of any worldwide football brand. Rivaldo was already in place, Zico spent a short time there and it was only a matter of time before a genuine big-name coach accepted a salary reputed to be the most lucrative in the world for a football coach.
Big Phil With A Big Smile
Money may be no object for Bunyodkor. It comes from a whole host of sources - some said to be more dubious than others. Not only that but the club is reportedly closely involved with the daughter of Uzbek dictator Ismail Karimov -a leader credited with taking Uzbekistan to the nether regions of the global human rights league - but there is one object that is the subject of fervent desire and that is the Asian Champions League.
Like Chelsea, Bunyodkor have never triumphed on the continent. Unlike Chelsea however, success at home is currently a given and nothing to get excited about. With the likes of Rivaldo in the ranks and a good percentage of the Uzbekistan national team – some of whom were plundered from city rivals and former number one club Pakhtakor – no other Uzbek outfit can stand in their way.
The new-found wealth of the club, formerly known as Kuruvchi, has almost ended the domestic league as a contest. The last time the team tasted domestic defeat was back on November 18, 2008. There are even mitigating circumstances behind the 2-1 loss at Neftchi as Bunyodkor. It was the penultimate game in the season and one which came after the team had already clinched the title. That is the only defeat in the last two full seasons and so far in 2010.
Few championship battles can have been as one-sided as the 2009 campaign. Out of 30 games, Bunyodkor won 28 and drew two, conceding only 13 goals in the process. The winning margin of 22 points may as well have been 200.
What this crushing domination has done is create expectations which are no longer met by domestic trophies, if they ever were once the money started pouring in. Bunyodkor demand is Asian and global success. That is why the big money was produced for Scolari. With the money and talent available, a World Cup winning coach is not required to win the domestic league. What he was recruited for was taking the club to continental glory.
It doesn’t stop there. Winning the tournament grants access to FIFA’s Club World Cup. This is the real target of the club – pitting Uzbekistan’s champions against the likes of Barcelona, a club with which it shares close ties, on the global stage.
The problem is, the club has to lift the Asian Champions League trophy to do so and so far, this has proved too beyond Zico and Scolari. Adelaide United did the damage in 2008 at the semi-final stage. A year later, Scolari watched in shock as his team, which won the first leg of the quarter-final at home against Pohang Steelers 3-1, lost the return 4-1 in South Korea (Pohang's two foreign strikers Denilson and Stevica Ristic now play for Bunyodkor). He was less than six months into his 18-month contract – one that expires in December, just after the Club World Cup finishes.
Ristic And Denilson Lift The Trophy For Pohang
So 2010 is the year. It started excellently. A 3-0 home win over 2009 runners-up Al Ittihad was ominous for the other 31 continental hopefuls. A regulation victory in Al Wahda followed and with six points from two matches, a place in the second round looked to be a foregone conclusion.
But a spanner in the shape of Zob Ahan was well and truly thrown into the works. The 3-0 loss in Iran, at the home of a team making its debut in the competition, could perhaps have been dismissed as just one of those results, a day when nothing goes right. The 1-0 loss at home just six days later was different however and has put real pressure on the Brazilian and his team.
Now, with two games remaining, a difficult trip to Al Ittihad looms. A loss in Jeddah and it will be all over. Scolari has much to do in Saudi Arabia. He admitted recently that Rivaldo takes care of the transfers. If the club’s Asian dreams ends seven months early, the question will then be ‘what does Scolari actually do?’ Playing around $18 million a year to take the Uzbek title is not what the owners had in mind when hiring Big Phil. Losing in the knockout stage is one thing, but to go out at the first hurdle over the course of six games is another.
Just Before The End At Chelsea
Paying off Scolari’s contract would be beyond most clubs but not this. Failure to go further than the quarter-final stage of the Asian Champions League in two attempts with millions in his bank account and at his disposal, would be exactly that: failure.
After the short-lived Chelsea sojourn, Scolari’s career, at a lofty zenith just a few years ago, would be in severe danger of ending with a whimper.