Thursday 27 October 2016, 13:05

Fast-improving Azerbaijan making all the right moves

Azerbaijan’s athletes are on a high at the moment, having excelled themselves at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, where they picked up a total of 18 medals, eight more than the nation managed in London four years earlier. Though that haul was mainly down to the efforts of the country’s boxers, wrestlers and judokas, the fact is that the two most popular sports in The Land of Fire are chess and football. Long regarded as a world superpower in the former, Azerbaijan is now starting to show its prowess in the latter, raising hopes of a breakthrough on the global scene.

In recording 1-0 wins over San Marino and Norway, the Azeris made the perfect start to their 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualification campaign in Group C. That brace of victories set them up nicely for their third outing, which came on 11 October against Czech Republic, one of the section’s two favourites, along with Germany. Though unable to maintain their perfect start, The Milli did hold Karel Jarolim’s side to a goalless draw that leaves them second in the pool, just two points behind the Germans.

The man behind the Azeris’ fine start is former Croatia international Robert Prosinecki, who took up the job in 2014. Giving his views to on their recent progress, the legendary midfielder said: “We are the revelation of the World Cup qualifiers. No one expected such results by Azerbaijan, but we believed we can match anyone. We changed a lot of players and believe in what we do, which is most important.”

Azerbaijan have never made such a good start to a FIFA World Cup or UEFA EURO qualifying competition, their best ever finish being fourth in the race for places at Brazil 2014, a campaign in which they picked up nine points, just two more than their current tally. Thanks to their recent results, the Azeris have climbed 45 places to 88th in October’s FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, just 15 below their all-time high of 73rd in 2014.

“We’re making progress every day,” commented a delighted Prosinecki. “My players are tough. They fight for every ball and they really focus in every game.” The solidity of his side is founded on the imposing frame of goalkeeper Kamran Aghayev and the central defensive partnership formed by Maksim Medvedev and team star and captain Rashad Sadygov, while Rahid Amirguliyev and Gara Garayev, bolstered by the experience they have picked up in the UEFA Europa League with their club Qarabag, are the men who make the Azerbaijan midfield tick. If the team does have a weakness, then it lies in attack, where they have found goals hard to come by, though Ruslan Qurbanov did manage to open his international account against San Marino in September, on his 12th appearance for his country. “My assistants and I want Azerbaijan to play football, and not just defend,” explained Prosinecki.

Stopping the German juggernaut

That philosophy is bearing fruit, with Azerbaijan having built on the goalless draws they recorded against Norway and Croatia in the qualifiers for EURO 2016, a campaign in which they also put up a fight in a 3-1 defeat to Italy. “We really, really work a lot,” continued Prosinecki. “And we convinced the players to believe in us and in their own capabilities. Now they believe they can surprise everyone.”

Their next assignment on the road to Russia 2018 comes on 11 November against Northern Ireland, a side the Azeris finished ahead of in the qualifiers for Brazil 2014, after drawing 1-1 in Belfast and winning the return in Baku 2-0. After that comes a home meeting with Germany next March. Born in Schwenningen, not far from Stuttgart, Prosinecki knows a thing or two about getting the better of the Germans, having helped Croatia score a famous win over them in the quarter-finals of France 1998. “It’s Germany, the team that has no weaknesses, that is always the favourite, that is always there or thereabouts in every competition,” Prosinecki told in a recent interview. “When you come up against Germany in the quarter-finals of a tournament, it’s almost mission impossible. Nobody can be favourites against Germany. It’s like a little club beating Real Madrid or Barcelona today, but we did it.”

With Prosinecki masterminding their promising campaign, the chess-crazy Azeris have their sights set on the perfect endgame.