Author: Nadir SANANOGLU
In these days, when the attention of international football community is focused on the world championship in Russia, the draw of the Champions League (CL) and Europa League (EL) took place in Nyon, Switzerland.
With big reforms in the format of European cups, UEFA held a new draw for the first qualifying stage and separated the days of the draw for the CL and EL.
Champions League: Garabagh to beat Olimpia
According to the results of the draw, Garabagh, which will represent Azerbaijan for the fifth time in the most prestigious club tournament in Europe, will enter the competition from the first qualifying stage. Azerbaijani team initially had five potential rivals: Shkendija (Macedonia), Dudelange (Luxembourg), Olimpia (Slovenia), Suduva (Lithuania), and Torpedo (Georgia). However, Olimpia became the opponent of the club from Aghdam. Undoubtedly, the champion of Slovenia is not a weak competitor. Even potential rivals in the second qualifying stage are weaker than Olympia. Note that the matches of the first stage will be held on July 10-11 and July 17-18. Garabagh will play its first game on July 10, and the return match will be held in Baku on the 18th.
If Garabagh loses in the first qualifying round of the Champions League, then it will perform in the second round of the Europa League in the so-called "path of champions" against the loser in another pair of the first round of the Champions League. This will be either Ludogorets (Bulgaria) or Crusaders (Northern Ireland).
According to statistics, Azerbaijani clubs have played six times with Slovenes in European competitions. The teams of Azerbaijan and Slovenia, which have previously competed only at the Europa League (formerly the UEFA Cup) will first compete at the Champions League. However, in the 2001/2002 season, the same Slovenian team already defeated the Azerbaijani club Shafa at the European Cup. At that time, our team was represented by Elkhan Hasanov, Elchin Rahmanov, as well as Zaur Taghizade, who is currently working for Garabagh. Although the name and the city of the Slovenian team are the same, the current team is completely different.
As for the six qualifying stages in which representatives of the two countries met, Slovenian qualified for the next stage four times, while the Azerbaijani clubs had this chance twice. Of the 12 matches held within these stages, seven times Slovenes won, three matches were won by Azerbaijani teams, two games ended in a draw. The Balkan team also exceeds us in the ratio of goals scored: 17 to 8.
Head coach of Garabagh Gurban Gurbanov in his interview with R+ called Olympia a strong rival: “We must admit that we got a difficult and unexpected rival. For a match with such an opponent, we will prepare as for a playoff match. We have already begun to analyse the team in order to be as ready as possible. We will try to do everything that is within our power.”
The Europa League: equal rivals
The draw of the first qualifying stage of the main path of the EL was also held in Nyon. Azerbaijan in this tournament will be represented by Gabala, Neftchi, and Keshla.
The silver medallist of the Azerbaijani Premier League Gabala will compete against Progress from Luxembourg. The first game will be held abroad. As for Neftchi, who finished the championship of Azerbaijan in the third position, it will compete with Ujpest (Hungary). The first game of Neftchi will be held at home, while the return game will be abroad. The owner of the Cup of Azerbaijan, FC Keshla, will compete with the Maltese Baltsan at the EL qualification stage.
Potential rivals of our teams if they succeed in the first stage are also known. Neftchi can only hope for a miracle. If Roberto Bordi’s players defeat the Hungarians, they will play with Seville. Gabala will have a difficult match indeed. In case of a victory in the first stage, the team will compete with the winner of the pair Honved (Hungary) - Rabotnicki (Macedonia). Only Keshla is relatively successful in the second stage. If Yuri Maksimov’s team defeats Baltsan, it will play with the winner of the pair Milsami (Moldova) - Slovan (Slovakia). Note that the first matches of this stage will be held on July 26, and the return meetings - on August 2.
“In modern football, there is no concept of a “weak team,” says Yuri Maksimov, head coach of Keshla. “We will prepare for the game with the Maltese with all responsibility. If Baltsan qualifies for the Europa League, it means that it is not a weak opponent. We must analyse their game well and prepare seriously for the match. We will have a difficult but an interesting confrontation,” Maximov said.
Neftchi’s coach Roberto Bordi also believes that the team should not underestimate their rivals. “Ujpest is a pretty strong team. Especially in terms of physical fitness. But we set big goals. We will try to gain enough strength before the game,” said the Italian specialist.
Head coach of Gabala, Sanan Gurbanov, evaluates the chances with the opponent as equal. “Last season, the representative of Luxembourg knocked out the Scottish club Rangers. Progress is quite a serious rival. The chances are, in general, equal. That’s why we will build a training plan. We will collect daily information about the opponent. A serious loss for us is the absence of Javid Huseynov. There are some vulnerable positions. We will try to fill them with new players. We have little time to prepare for the match with Progress. Every day, every training is important. The venue of the first match is not so important - at home or abroad. The main thing is the readiness of the team. At the training camp we have to get a good game form,” Gurbanov said.
Despite cautious forecasts of the coaches, it seems that the rivals of Azerbaijani clubs at the first stage can handle them. It is true that both Garabagh and Gabala are going to play with strong teams but this cannot be an excuse for defeat.