Author: Nadir KHOSROVOGHLU
New season of European competition is coming. The die is cast and the rivals are already known. Who will be the rivals of Azerbaijani football clubs; what kind of competition is ahead and what are their chances?
Good contender for Garabagh
In the first qualifying round of the Champions League FC Garabagh, the champion of Azerbaijan, will meet with Partizan from Albania. The club was established on February 4, 1946, soon after the end of the Second World War. But the team’s first European appearance was in 1962. After that, Partizan periodically played in qualifying stages of continental-scale tournaments. Interestingly, the club has never made its way into the European Cup group stage. The team has managed to overcome the qualifying round only four times. In addition, in the last 15 matches on the international stage, the Albanian club has not had a single victory. Although most of the players are Albanian football players, there are also players from Nigeria, Northern Macedonia, Kosovo, the US, Gambia, Finland, Brazil, Ghana. The head coach of Partisan is 51-year-old Italian Franco Lerda.
It is expected that Garabagh will be able to defeat Partizan and successfully finish the first qualifying stage. Thus, the champion of Azerbaijan is indicated as a favourite of the match. This, however, is no reason to relax, Garabakh's head coach Gurban Gurbanov said.
“As always, we will meet with a serious rival. Albanian clubs are showing a very disciplined game. We are waiting for a difficult competition. As far as I know, the team has a new head coach. This will be an unfamiliar opponent. There are many differences between last year’s team and the current one. In addition to changing the trainer, new transfers are also possible. We must be extremely collected and attentive,” Gurbanov said.
Franco Lerda of Partizan also believes that his players will meet with a strong opponent. “Before the draw, I didn’t really think about any team. We have to think only about the game, to be ready for it both physically and technically. In order to overcome the stage, we must be ready psychologically. After all, there are no easy games. I believe that everything will be fine,” Franco Lerda said.
In the next stage, Garabagh will meet the winner of the pair Dundalk (Ireland) - Riga (Latvia).
Neftchi vs a debutant team
In the first qualifying stage of the Europa League, the silver medalist of the Azerbaijani championship, FC Neftchi, will play against the Moldavian club Speranta. Last season, this club finished fourth with 38 points. In the current Moldova Championship, the blue-whites after 13 rounds are in 5th place with 19 points. The club has not had any success in the European arena though. Thanks to the “golden double”, this rights belongs to Sheriff.
The game with Neftchi will be a debut of Speranta in European competition. The Moldavian club includes football players from Brazil, Cameroon, Cote dʻIvoire, Colombia, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia and Tajikistan. While working in Sheriff, the current head coach of Neftchi, Roberto Bordin, have met several times with Speranta.
If Neftchi goes to the next stage, the Russian club Arsenal from Tula will become their rival. It should be noted that the draw was favourable to Neftchi. The representative of the Azerbaijani capital is fully capable of overcoming the first two stages.
"Speranta is not an easy team. The football season in Moldova continues, which means that the opponent is in better physical shape. After all, we only recently started training sessions. But we will try to improve physical fitness. The Moldova Championship and Speranta are naturally familiar to me. I know that a good coach works with the team. We must overcome this stage. I believe in my players,” Roberto Bordin, head coach of Neftchi, said.
“In my opinion, there are no easy opponents in European competitions. But one can compete with all of them. We will play with those that the lottery has brought us. Of course, Roberto Bordin is more informed. But let's not forget that Sheriff lost the last match under the leadership of Bordin to Speranta at home. And the head of our team is the same Christian Efros. If you look from this point of view, both coaches know each other well and have complete information. Neftchi has no more chances than us. My team plays especially well against strong rivals,” Speranta's president Petru Efros said.
Strong rival for Sabail
Meanwhile, the debutant of European cups, Sabail, was unlucky. Without strong team members, the capital club will meet with an experienced opponent. In the first qualifying stage, the team led by Aftandil Hajiyev will play with the Craiova University team of Romania.
With 36 points, CS Universitatea Craiova took the fourth place in the standings last season and reached the semifinals, where it played against Vitorul, during the competition for the cup. The team has well-known legionaries. The colours of Universitatea Craiova are defended by the former Gabala striker Andrea Cristea and Cesar Meza Colli, who played for Keshla and Zira. Andrea played in Azerbaijan in 2014, and Caesar in 2016-2018. There are many legionnaires in the team representing Italy, Portugal, Cote d'Ivoire, Croatia, Bulgaria, Switzerland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Paraguay. The head coach is a 45-year-old Romanian specialist Corneliu Papure. If we compare the line-ups, Sabail has two difficult games ahead.
“We got the strongest of potential rivals during the draw. But we will do our best to compete adequately. Our goal is to prepare players well for these games, because the opponent is a strong team. It has the players with high individual qualities. I even know some of them. Among the players offered by the managers during the transfers there are several players from our opponents. Although we got a difficult opponent, we are optimistic. We intend to represent the country with dignity,” Sabail's head coach Aftandil Hajiyev said.
Another Azerbaijani club, the winner of Azerbaijan Cup, Gabala, will join the Europa League from the second stage. The team led by Sanan Gurbanov will meet with the winner of the pair Dinamo (Georgia) - La Fiorita (San Marino) / Enqordani (Andorra).
Note that the games of the first stage of the Champions League and Europa League will be held on July 9 and 11, respectively.