FK Baku can cause a UEFA Cup upset if they avoid defeat against MŠK Žilina in Slovakia.
By Erkin Ibragimov
When FK Dinamo Baku qualified for the UEFA Cup as Azerbaijani league runners-up in 1998, few were surprised when they were dumped out of the competition in the first qualifying round by Romania's FC Arges Pitesti. However, having won 1-0 against MŠK Žilina in their opening UEFA Cup tie this season, expectations are high that the club can reach the next round under their new name, FK Baku.
"Last season, we never lost at home," said Baku captain Ramin Guliyev as he reflected on his side's maiden UEFA Cup victory. "We also managed to beat Žilina and showed that we could play better football than the Slovakians. Now we need to hold out for a good result in Slovakia. I genuinely believe we will play in the next round."
Formed in 1997 with the merger of two minor sides, FK Polis Akademiyasy and FK Chinar, the club's second-placed finish in their first season in operation was considered to be a fine result. However, Dinamo were unable to follow up on this early promise, and it took a change of name - and the arrival of new president Khafiz Mamedov in 2004 - to set pulses racing again.
The foundations of the current side were laid last summer by young coach Elkhan Abdullayev. Olexander Chertoganov and the Brazilian trio of Leandro Gomes, Andre Ladaga and Fernando Perez all signed for the club, but never got the chance to play competitive football under Elkhan Abdullayev, as the coach resigned following a disagreement with the club's owners.
None the less, the man who inherited the team that the young coach helped to mould - former Azerbaijan national-team coach Asker Abdullayev - made good progress. While Elkhan Abdullayev went to FK Karabakh, Asker Abdullayev led Baku to their longest ever unbeaten run in the league in his first season in charge and came within a few games of snatching the title.
Baku could well have taken the Azeri crown but for a disastrous run of results at the end of the campaign which saw them drop six easy points to finish fifth, five points adrift of champions PFC Neftchi. However, a 2-1 win in the Azerbaijan Cup final against local rivals FK Inter Baku was to win Baku a place in the UEFA Cup.
This summer, the club have been hard at work strengthening their squad as they look to become the first Azeri team to win their way through a round of the UEFA Cup. Having off-loaded a number of their players from last season, Baku have signed Azerbaijan internationals Rauf Mekhtiev, Emin Imamaliev and Vadim Vasiljev, but there have been plenty of foreign transfers too.
The squad that earned a 1-0 win against Žilina in Baku also included Georgian international goalkeeper Soso Grishikashvili and his compatriot Alexander Gogoberishvili, as well as Albanian international Suad Lici and Latvia international Andrejs Štolcers. The squad was further strengthened by the arrival of Senegalese international Khalidou Sissoko.
"Few people believed we would win a European berth this season, yet we've done it," said managing director Zeynal Mamedov. "
I think the reason we're successful is team unity. The way we played in the first game we could have hoped for more, but we were only able to score once. Now we can expect a very close tie in Slovakia and we know how much it would mean to get a result."