For the fifth straight season, to Qarabağ ran away from the rest of the league by Easter. A bitter Azerbaijan Cup semi-final loss to Sumgayit and an even more painful Champions League exit may have soured the mood for the Horsemen, but over a 28-week schedule Qarabağ once again proved simply too good and too deep to be caught.
In light of their extraordinary domestic and European feats, Qarabağ have transformed their reputation to Azerbaijan Premier League giants. Perhaps most crucially, this squad now know what it’s like to regularly win trophies after adding the another Premier League title, and Gurban Gurbanov knows better than anyone the deep positive effect of that.
But has the overall quality changed? Has it really been elevated? That’s open to question and is currently difficult to answer.
Roman Hryhorchuk once again tried to change things at Gabala but the impression from the club, and the media, was that they could have performed better, dominated games more and had more possession. He tried but when something goes against the essence of your approach to football, difficulties soon arise, as we’ve seen this season.
With the exception of Javid Huseynov, Gabala’s midfielders have been disappointing, while the inconsistency of key players like Filip Ozobić and Tamkin Khalilzadeh, despite coming strong towards the last season, left them exposed. Bagaliy Dabo and Steeven Joseph-Monrose are the two stand-out players for Gabala but Hryhorchuk did not succeed in building a new-look side.
The ambitious project in Zira is bearing fruit much faster than anticipated. Consider that the club was founded just four years ago, starting out in the Azerbaijan first division. On the contrary, Zira’s winter form was a shadow of last year’s version, with coach Aykhan Abbasov falling in a long mid-season funk.
Sumgayit have been one of tales of the season. After many disappointing campaigns, they have returned to being a competitor for the third place. Most of their signings are decent, their midfield is compact yet creative, with strikers who score with almost every match. All of that thanks to a coach who has put the jigsaw together and made a piece of art.
Samir Abbasov has been a revelation for the club.
Furthermore, Abbasov and Sumgayit president Riyad Rafiyev are heading for a nasty and public divorce, a result of growing, “clear dissent between the two”. Abbasov, who had a falling out with the club’s president this winter and openly complained about the club’s decisions in the transfer market.
By missing out on Europe after such a positive season, don’t expect the likes of Javid Imamverdiyev and Amil Yunanov to stick around. In fact, this club will face a significant rebuild this summer.
Meanwhile in Baku, Neftchi had perhaps an even more surprising season than Sumgayit. Though the club faded in the first half of the season with an impressive collection of point-dropping draws, not only were they happy to play spoiler against Sumgayit and Zira, but more importantly, they clinched the third spot in the Premier League for the first time since 2012/13.
On the other side, there are also doubts about coach Tarlan Ahmadov’s future at the club, due to a release clause in his current deal.
In light of having a transfer embargo, having to integrate loan signings and free transfer players, and not having a proven goalscorer in the squad, Keshla exceeded expectations. Manager Yuriy Maksymov has had an encouraging influence on the team, but now needs to prove he’s capable of managing the club at longer term.
Having been newly promoted at the start of the season, Sabail has learned a lot from their first year and have ultimately held their own. Samir Aliyev’s first season as Sabail manager can’t be regarded as a failure, but he struggled to keep the players motivated at key times, particularly at the end of the season. This is a pivotal time in Aliyev’s managerial career. If he gets it right, he could take himself and the team to the next level. If not, he’ll be gone around Christmas with his reputation damaged, irrevocably perhaps, and Sabail be fighting against relegation.
This season was a disaster for Kapaz. But it has been coming for years now, the club has been run terribly for the last few years. The First Division will be a tough slog now. Kapaz need a miracle.
The Azerbaijan Premier League Team of the Year 2017-18:
GK – Ibrahim Šehić (Qarabağ)
DF – Adrian Scarlatache (Keshla)
DF – Vojislav Stanković (Gabala)
DF – Rashad Sadygov (Qarabağ)
MF – Milan Đurić (Zira)
MF – Ruslan Abishov (Inter Baku/Neftchi)
MF – Richard Almeida (Qarabağ)
MF – Javid Imamverdiyev (Sumgayit)
MF – Rahman Hajiyev (Neftchi)
FW – Mahir Madatov (Qarabağ)
FW – Steeven Joseph-Monrose (Gabala)
FW – Bagaliy Dabo (Gabala)
Manager of the year: Gurban Gurbanov (Qarabağ)
Player of the year: Bagaliy Dabo (Gabala)
Young player of the year: Mahir Madatov (Qarabağ)
Author: Dr. Fuad Alakbarov/@dralakbarov