Champions League: Qarabag carry qualifying danger for Celtic

By Liam McLeodBBC Scotland
Ansi Agolli celebrates against St Etienne last season
Qarabag drew with St Etienne last season
Champions League third qualifying round, first leg: Celtic v Qarabag
Venue: Celtic Park, Glasgow Date: Wednesday 29 July Kick-off: 19:45 BST
Coverage: BBC Radio Scotland 810 MW (no online rights), live text on BBC Sport website

In December of last year, Celtic lost a thriller 4-3 in Croatia to Dinamo Zagreb.

A disappointing result, of course, but the Scottish champions had already navigated an awkward group stage to seal a place in the last 32 of the Europa League.

Ronny Deila was afforded an all-too rare relaxing European evening.

The same cannot be said of his soon-to-be opposite number that cold winter night.

Long-serving Qarabag coach Gurban Gurbanov had as taut an evening as he will have had on that stage.

The back-to-back Azerbaijan champions, like Celtic, who are their Champions League third qualifying round opponents on Wednesday, went into their final group stage match in second place. However, they had not qualified.

That would ultimately elude them as they welcomed Deila's last 32 opponents, Inter Milan, to Baku.

What happened in the final minute of stoppage time of the credible goal-less draw will still rankle with The Horsemen.

Maksim Medvedev (left) in action for Qarabag against Inter Milan
Qarabag were controversially denied a victory over Inter Milan in the Europa League group stage last season

Brazilian midfielder Richard Almeida hammered home from just inside the box with the ball deflecting into the net via Inter defender Isaac Donkor.

The scenes inside the national stadium, where the club currently play, were of jubilation.

Jubilation that would be doused by the inexplicable decision to rule the goal out for an offside that never was.

At the same time, Dnipro were defeating the group's bottom side, Saint Etienne, 1-0.

Those who were in ecstasy were suddenly plunged into torture.

The Ukrainians gleefully leapfrogged Qarabag, who in a split second had been eliminated and denied their most famous triumph.

That tear-jerker is likely to drive a squad that has taken an iron grip of football in Azerbaijan in the last two years.

They would go on to win the league title, adding the national cup by defeating the country's most successful club, Neftchi Baku, in the final at the beginning of June.

Qarabag head coach Gurban Gurbanov directs his team from the sidelines
Qarabag head coach Gurban Gurbanov has styled his team on Pep Guardiola's Barcelona

Gurbanov - who featured for the national team for more than a decade as one of their main strikers - has been at the helm since 2008 and goes into this season with largely the same squad as made history last term.

Standing out from the rest is star striker Reynaldo.

Another Brazilian, he was the difference in the second qualifying round against Montenegrins Rudar Pljevlja, scoring the only goal of the tie in the second leg.

He will be personally driven by the fact injury ravaged his season last time out, although his 10 goals stands up well to the 22 he fired the campaign before considering he played half the matches.

The ambitious Gurbanov brought in Dutch striker and Ajax graduate Rydell Poepon from French second-tier club Valenciennes.

However, he has recently focused his attention on promoting and signing youth, with 19-year-old new boy Cosqun Diniyev playing a role in both legs of the last round.

Since taking the helm, the 43-year-old has changed the club's style of play to something akin to Guardiola-era Barcelona.

The club itself enjoys unrivalled popularity in Azerbaijan having been forcibly uprooted.

Reynaldo (right) in action against Inter Milan
Reynaldo (right) scored the goal that took Qarabag past Rudar Pljevlja in the last round

The ghost town of Agdam was their home before - like everyone else there - they were forced to flee as it fell to Armenian forces during the 1993 Summer Offensives of the Nagorno-Karabakh War.

Indeed, the club lost its former coach, Allahverdi Bagirov, who had become an army commander, during the conflict.

They now call the capital Baku, where their new stadium is being constructed, their home, although the national team's ground will host next week's return against Celtic.

Such is Qarabag's popularity, the team can expect the help of more than their small core support as a result of their roots.

The 32,000-capacity national stadium was full when they defeated Red Bull Salzburg in the Champions League qualifiers last season, albeit elimination followed a second-leg loss.

Salzburg went on to test Deila's men in the Europa League, plundering a 3-1 win in Glasgow in November, so the Celtic players will be aware of the level they will need to reach to progress to the play-offs.

From experienced captain Rashad Sadygov and Azerbaijan international team-mate Maksim Medvedev at the back, the country's 2014 player of the year, Gara Garayev, and number 10 Dani Quintana of Spain in the middle, to the talented Reynaldo, Qarabag promise to be as awkward as anyone Deila's team has faced on the continent.

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