Group Stage Fan Preview: Qarabağ

Qarabag’s history is a moving and tragic, where their European adventures are a positive highlight on an otherwise poignant backdrop. Displaced from their home city of Aghdam since 1993 due to the brutal Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, they have played their “home” matches in Baku based stadium, named after the world’s famous linesman in the 1966 World Cup Final.

Qarabag are a decent team by European standards, and they have gained priceless experience from previous Europa League campaigns. The draw was very tough for them, with Chelsea and Atletico Madrid completing the group alongside Roma, but they must never be underestimated and could pose a substantial danger to any opposition.

The Horsemen are the first Azerbaijani team to make it through to the Champions League group stage. As a result, progression beyond the borders of Group C seems to be unlikely for the five-time Azerbaijani Premier League champions, but they could quite easily pull off a few shocks throughout the autumn especially when competing on home soil.

Qarabag have lost just one of their last nine European home matches (W5 D3), going down 2-1 against Fiorentina on 8 December 2016.

Current manager Gurban Gurbanov has been in charge of the Horsemen since summer 2008 and enjoys a decent win-rate of just over 50%. The 45-year-old has led Qarabag to four league titles and three Azerbaijan Cups during his reign at the helm.

Gurbanov has always insisted that the team should play to their strengths, rather than being fearful of the rivals’ abilities. Gurbanov is a long-time admirer of Pep Guardiola and was particularly thrilled to visit Barcelona in the beginning of 2012, having productive discussions both with their legendary coach and sports director Andoni Zubizarreta. Qarabag were likened to the Catalans in local press, and some pundits even labelled them the “Caucasian Barcelona.”

South African forward Dino Ndlovu led the way for Qarabag in their league campaign last season and helped his side to clinch their fourth league title in a row by scoring ten goals. Furthermore, he scored four times in the Champions League’s qualifying phase, so he won’t be put off by the top guns of the big stage.

Qarabag are strong defensively, with 35-year-old captain Rashad Sadygov leading by example. With more than a century of caps for the national team to his name, he is hugely experienced, and is well aided by the younger and quicker Badavi Guseynov in central defence.

In addition, the political background of the club gives incredible mental strength to players. The dressing room is united as a result, and even the foreign players understand the special importance of every game in Europe.

Midfielder Richard Almeida and Michel are the real danger men for Qarabag. Decent performances from naturalized Azerbaijani and former Birmingham midfielder, means that rivals will be watching their numbers very closely.

Having scored twice from midfield and with an average 90% pass completion rate, expect Almeida to be the one that makes Qarabag tick again and if he is not marshalled properly, he could quite easily lead the Horsemen to a surprise results.

Gurbanov has been heralded as a champion of youth, and has routinely looked to his youth reserves to supplement his first-team squad. Gurbanov insists Qarabag is the best place for any youngster looking to make the most of his talent, with Aghabala Ramazanov, Mahir Madatov and Badavi Huseynov all improving under his guidance since their arrival.

The Qarabag boss admitted that a bigger squad is needed if Qarabag are to effectively prepare for Champions League and that, tactically, he will need to consider introducing a number of new formations if his squad are to compete on all fronts.

Stats might suggest otherwise, but the team often plays attacking football, even when encountering top side. A low conversion rate is the most primary weakness. Another challenging feature of their game is a lack of speed, specifically in central midfield. They can be found wanting on the counter and opposite sides can take advantage of that.

In what will certainly be a three-way race to make the knockout stage, a maximum result will be expected against Qarabag – but the Horsemen have a history of strong results in Baku, drawing with Monaco and defeating Anderlecht in the Europa League two years ago. Could they cause a shock that decides the group? Just look at Qarabag’s incredible journey.

By: Fuad Alakbarov