Set to face his homeland and Group H leaders Croatia on Thursday, Robert Prosinečki has his Azerbaijan side on an upward curve. UEFA.com's looks at the reasons why.
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Robert Prosinečki leads Azerbaijan into their Group H meeting with his homeland Croatia on Thursday nine months after taking over as coach. At the time his charges were empty-handed at the bottom of the section but his first two competitive games brought four points. Now, with group leaders Croatia – a team he could not know better – visiting Baku, we look at reasons why the hosts might just be able to get something against opponents who thrashed them 6-0 in Osijek last October.
Appointed in December, the 46-year-old Prosinečki has raised the confidence and ambition of his players, helping to remove an inferiority complex which has hampered Azerbaijan against the bigger nations. Having competed with the world's best during his own career, the former Real Madrid and Barcelona midfielder is now telling his players they can do the same.
"He believes in us. He believes we can play well and achieve our goals and that is very important for our team mentality," captain Rashad F Sadygov explained. "Before the match in Norway in June, he told us he could guarantee we would not lose. And he was right [they drew 0-0]. In all my time in the national team no other coach has believed in us so much."
Promoted an attacking mentality
The reactive and defensive style of play witnessed under former coach Berti Vogts brought neither results nor enjoyment. His successor knew a fresh approach was required and has allowed his more attacking players to follow their instincts. "The coach wants forwards to play with more freedom and take more initiative. Prosinečki demands that we attack, though not at the expense of defence," said winger Afran Ismayilov.
Brought his lucky streak
The notion of luck in sport is a great intangible but Azerbaijani fans and commentators have seen fortune favour their side in this new era. Under Prosinečki, they have seen a 2-0 win against Malta and a 0-0 draw with Norway, yet there were moments in both qualifiers when, if the ball had bounced differently, things could have gone very differently. Yes, Azerbaijan's upturn stems from improved performances and commitment, but a touch of luck has not gone amiss either.
Previously assistant coach of Croatia as well as boss of Crvena zvezda and Kayserispor, Prosinečki is an open person who has swiftly found common ground with both players and journalists, in contrast to predecessor Vogts. He has shown a willingness to answer even the most searching questions from the press and regularly explains his decision-making process and ideas in refreshingly open sessions with media. "I will always answer journalists' questions, even after defeats," he promised upon his appointment. He has kept his word.
Not all plain sailing
"I only need those who play regularly," the 1991 European Cup winner said to justify his omission of players not featuring regularly for their clubs. Many expected the likes of Ufuk Budak, Rüfat Dadaşov, Ilgar Gurbanov and Vagif Javadov to get a chance but the coach had a different opinion.
Moreover, Prosinečki answered a public clamour to give Nurlan Novruzov – top scorer in the 2014/15 Azerbaijani Premier League – an opportunity to prove him wrong after he had been quoted as saying the Zire forward "does not fit into my playing style". And even if Novruzov left the camp a few days later, Prosinečki has fostered enough good will in his opening year to outlast any criticism. Certainly the press and supporters are well behind the coach who has brought a feel-good factor to the national team.