Trailblazers for their country on the European scene before, FK Qarabağ are doing Azerbaijan proud once again after a superb win at Wisła Kraków put them within touch of the play-offs.
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'Azerbaijan's proud of you Qarabağ' – the banners at Baku airport said it all after Gurban Gurbanov's team were welcomed home from their superb UEFA Europa League win at Wisła Kraków.
It was the second time in little over a week that a Polish club had succumbed to visitors from Azerbaijan. However, while KKS Lech Poznań managed to save the day after losing 1-0 to FC İnter Bakı – progressing from their UEFA Champions League qualifier via a penalty shoot-out – Wisła have a third qualifying round mountain to climb in Baku on Thursday.
Vugar Nadyrov's 69th-minute goal secured a 1-0 first-leg victory for FK Qarabağ, who may have struggled to make an impact on the domestic scene in recent years but have been trailblazers for their country on the continent. Not crowned national champions since 1997, Qarabağ nevertheless became the first Azerbaijani team to progress through a UEFA competition round two years later.
Last term they made history again by reaching the UEFA Europa League play-offs before being knocked out by FC Twente – and they look a good bet to make that stage once more. "I think even a 1-0 loss would have given us a good chance to progress," said coach Gurbanov. "To be honest, Wisła didn't surprise me at all. I knew their strengths, so we prepared accordingly. We can't afford to relax despite the away victory. If anything, I think they will attack more in Baku."
As well as breaking new ground in terms of results, Qarabağ have also set the agenda with links to other European clubs. Vagif Dzhavadov's transfer last year to Twente resulted in an agreement whereby Dutch coaches would help develop Azerbaijani youngsters. It may be a few years before this programme bears fruit, but Thursday's first-leg result demonstrated that the Agdam outfit are still the country's standard bearer in Europe.
Nadyrov, who struck within a minute of coming on in Krakow, was eager to keep sight of the big picture. "After I scored I told my team-mates not to celebrate too much," said the 23-year-old forward. "It is dangerous to get too excited and lose concentration. With the number of opportunities we created we should have won 3-0, but we still face a very tough game at home."
Following Lech's close shave, 12-time Polish title winners Wisła should not have been surprised by what Qarabağ had to offer, but coach Henryk Kasperczak was in sombre mood nonetheless. "The defeat hurts a lot," he said. "We lacked a lot of things. Maybe if we had scored in the first half it would have been different. On behalf of the team, I would like to apologise to all the fans."
European Champion Clubs' Cup quarter-finalists in 1979, Wisła have their work cut out yet Kasperczak remains hopeful. "We have a second game. The situation is not easy, but we want to go there and qualify. We have to work on our attack, on improving our finishing and wing play."