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Azerbaijan on upward curve

Azerbaijan’s bid to impress in the qualifying rounds for EURO 2000™ got off to a nightmare start as they crashed to a 3-0 away defeat by Slovakia.

Azerbaijan’s bid to impress in the qualifying rounds for EURO 2000™ got off to a nightmare start as they crashed to a 3-0 away defeat by Slovakia. Strengthened by the inclusion of Veli Kasumov, the leading scorer in the Russian championship in 1992, and CSKA Moscow midfield player Narvik Sirkhaev, they were hoping to mount a serious challenge in Košice, but their hopes were dashed in a first half in which they conceded three goals.

Three late goals
A win in their next game, a home tie with Hungary in Baku, was imperative but the sending off of Vjacheslav Lychkin on the hour, two minutes after Pál Dárdai had opened the scoring for the visitors, seemingly ended any chance of success. With five minutes to go Azerbaijan were still a goal behind, but three late Hungarian goals gave the score a slightly uneven look and left the home support dismayed.

Shock defeat
With coach Vaguf Sadygov struggling to raise morale, the last thing Azerbaijan needed was a trip to Liechtenstein. The home side, made up of amateur players, found themselves two goals to the good in Vaduz and even though Gurban Gurbanov scored for Azerbaijan it turned out to be nothing more than a consolation as the minnows held on for a famous victory. The deflated team returned to Azerbaijan to find the country’s press severely criticising coach Sadygov - in one publication he was awarded honorary citizenship of Liechtenstein for letting them win their first ever qualifying match.

New coach
Days before the next fixture, an away game against Portugal in Guimaraes, Sadygov resigned and was replaced by the experienced Ahmed Aleskerov. The new coach could do little to prevent Portugal running out 7-0 winners, but five days later, as Azerbaijan took on Romania in Baku, Aleskerov showed that he had managed to install something into the squad that had seemingly been missing in previous qualifiers - heart.

Teenage sensation
Azerbaijan were boosted by the presence of two players featuring in a squad for the first time - teenage sensation Zaur Tagizade and Vladimir Poshekhontsev, a former Ukrainian. Azerbaijan looked a different team from the one thrashed in Portugal, and, even though they lost 1-0 to a Florian Petre goal, there was no disgrace in defeat. The first win of the campaign finally arrived with a 4-0 thumping of Liechtenstein, the victory going some way to avenging their disastrous defeat in Vaduz, but the euphoria was short-lived as they lost their next fixture against Romania by the same score, 4-0.

Tactics and structure revised
Aleskerov used the summer break to revise his tactics and review the way the team was structured. He decided to base the team around that of FC Neftchi, the finest club side in Azerbaijan, and his efforts produced an instant dividend as his side recorded a memorable 1-1 draw with the mighty Portuguese. Luis Figo’s last-gasp effort cancelling out Tagizade’s opener for Azerbaijan on a dream night in Baku.

World Cup qualifying
Azerbaijan lost their final game of the campaign 1-0 to Slovakia, and Aleskerov stepped down after tallying only four points during his stint in the job. The country began their preparations for the 2002 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign under an interim coach, Asker Abdullaev, but Igor Ponomarev was installed in time for the first match.

Warmly received
That was a 1-0 defeat by Sweden, the eventual group winners, the performance being warmly received by the Azerbaijani press and fans. They had an excellent chance to take the initiative in the following game against FYR Macedonia but went down 3-0 after Kiamal Guliav missed an early penalty for Azerbaijan in Skopje.

Nine-man Moldova
The next game saw Baku bracing itself for the visit of nearby Turkey, but, yet again, Azerbaijan fell to a single goal defeat against a European powerhouse, Hakan Sükur the man on target. Just when it looked as though the team could be set to register an important victory, they were held at home to a scoreless draw by Moldova, who finished the game with nine men, before successive defeats, 3-1 and 3-0 respectively, followed against Slovakia and Turkey.

Magnificent display
The string of poor results piled the pressure on to Ponomarev, but his side produced a magnificent display to defeat Slovakia in Baku, Vadim Vasiliev and Tagizade scoring the goals. But it was the performance of young goalkeeper Jahangir Gasanzade that caught the eye as he produced a string of fine saves to shut out the Slovakians. Azerbaijan’s next match, in Chisinau against Moldova, was another defeat, 2-0 the score this time.

Successful campaign
Still the campaign proved to be the most successful in Azerbaijan’s history as they came away with another precious point, drawing 1-1 with the Macedonians thanks to a Farrukh Ismailov strike. The last World Cup qualifier took place in Stockholm, when a pair of promising Azerbaijani players, Rashad Sadygov and Romal Guseinov, earned their first caps for the national team. However, another starlet, Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, was the man of the match, scoring a goal and helping his country to a 3-0 victory and a place at Korea/Japan.