Club Brugge KV may tower over Qarabağ FK in terms of European pedigree, but when they drew the Azerbaijani side in the UEFA Europa League third qualifying round, they could be forgiven a shudder or two.
In the last two seasons, Qarabağ have delighted in causing bigger sides problems in this competition. In 2009/10, they eliminated Rosenborg BK and were only denied a group stage place by FC Twente's 3-1 aggregate victory in the play-offs. Last time out, they ousted Wisła Kraków but Borussia Dortmund overpowered them at the same stage.
This time, despite drawing the 13-time Belgian champions, who have reached the finals of both of UEFA's top club competitions, Qarabağ are looking to go one better. "The fans believe in Qarabağ and are expecting great victories," said vice-president Tahir Gozal. "The time has come to qualify for the group stage. This is our main goal."
Led by Gurban Gurbanov, Qarabağ have gone against the prevailing wind in Azeri football, eschewing foreign signings in favour of nurturing local talent. Their only acquisition of note this season was striker Bakhtiyar Soltanov, 22, from Bakı FK, who scored in the 7-0 first qualifying round success against FK Banga.
Qarabağ hardly stormed into the third qualifying round, beating Faroese side EB/Streymur on away goals, but midfielder Namig Yusifov is not too concerned. "It is always tough to play against teams who defend with ten men," he said. "
We are always at our best against the strongest opposition, so people should not hurry to make predictions."
The Baku-based side, whose home town of Agdam has been an abandoned ruin since the 1994 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, hope to put those words into practice on Thursday. "Our main task is to score in Belgium," said Gurbanov, 29, whose 12 goals made him his nation's top international scorer. "An away goal would improve our chances significantly. I promise we will be better than we were against EB/Streymur."
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