Azebaijan 0-2 Wales
Wales are five points clear at the top of UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifying Group 9 after a comfortable win against Azerbaijan in Baku.
Full of confidence
Having already beaten Finland and Italy in their opening qualifiers, Wales travelled to Azerbaijan without midfield player Robbie Savage and forward Craig Bellamy, but full of confidence after their best start to a qualifying campaign for a decade.
The home side began brightly, though, and Gurban Gurbanov and Samir Aliyev had early opportunities. Aliyev was closest on four minutes when he saw a shot deflected just past the post.
Speed on target
But it was Wales who took the lead in the ninth minute after winning a corner when Azerbaijani goalkeeper Djakhangir Gasanzade saved excellently from Ryan Giggs. Simon Davies took the kick, and Welsh captain Gary Speed was on hand to head in.
Hartson hits crossbar
Visiting goalkeeper Paul Jones then did well to save an Aliyev effort, but John Hartson was unlucky not to double Wales' lead in the 28th minute when he was first to another Davies corner, only to see his shot hit the crossbar.
The second half saw Azerbaijan again take the game to their opponents, Gurbanov slicing wide on 54 minutes. Wales then gradually took control of the game, and effectively sealed the match on 67 minutes, when Hartson was fouled by Fizuli Mamedov, and was then on hand to head in the resultant free-kick from Davies.
Gurbanov and substitute Farukh Ismaylov both had chances to pull one back for Azerbaijan, the latter seeing a shot saved by Jones with nine minutes remaining, but Wales held on.
Suspension hits hard
Caretaker Azerbaijan coach Asker Abdullayef, who succeeded Vagif Sadygof in October, admitted that the six-month long suspension of domestic football in his nation had contributed to his team's third defeat in three qualifiers.
"It is impossible to play against such a strong European team when we have no domestic league," he said. "If the dispute is not resolved, I will resign as my predecessor did a month ago."
Welsh manager Mark Hughes said: "I am happy with the result and the performance shown. Wales have a really strong team, maybe the strongest ever."
Sympathy for hosts
But Hughes did have sympathy for his opponents' plight. "I understand the coach's situation as it is impossible to prepare the team without any domestic competition and also there are very few players who have played abroad in the Azeri squad," Hughes said.