Football teams from three different Caspian basin countries may, for the very first time, represent the region at the Union of European Football Association’s (UEFA) elite club-level tournament Champions League (CL) group stage. Hundreds of thousands of football fans in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia will be thrilled in the play-off games, final round to secure UEFA CL group stage licenses this month.
Azerbaijan’s Qarabağ FK team last Tuesday outclassed Sheriff Tiraspol from Moldova during the Champions League third qualification round. Just one day later Kazakhstan’s Astana team eliminated Poland’s Legia, while Russia’s CSKA (Central Sport Club of the Army) knocked out AEK of Greece to secure their spots in the play-offs.
Qarabağ will face off against the Danish team København (Copenhagen) on August 15 for the Champions League group stage participation, while the Moscow-based CSKA will test its skills against Switzerland’s Young Boys on the same day. Astana will play against the Scottish Celtic football a day later.
Orkhan Ismayilov, a football analyst and co-founder of Azerbaijan’s largest online football community Offside.com.az, believes Copenhagen’s unsuccessful start at the internal league may affect its game negatively against Qarabag.
“[Copenhagen’s] attacking line is strong, but the defense is weak. Qarabag should try its best to not concede a goal in the first home game and seek a goal in the second leg in Denmark. This could bring the group stage participation,” Ismayilov told Caspian News.
The Danish club has won one match only out of four in the domestic championship.
“Copenhagen may appreciate the group stage chances with 20 percent to 80 percent to its own favor. However, I believe Qarabağ are on a par with its rival in securing group stage license.”
The 2017-18 Champions League is the 63rd season of the elite European football (soccer) tournament, which begins on September 12 and wraps up on May 26 next year.
Qarabağ, nicknamed “horsemen,” could be the first team in Azerbaijan to advance to the UEFA Champions League. The club’s ten years history in European football is not long, but not without accomplishment. Three times in a row, from 2015 through 2017, Qarabag competed in UEFA’s Europa League, considered the second-most prestigious tournament, a record in Azerbaijani football.
For its part, Copenhagen is well familiar with the UEFA Champions League group stage competition, having qualified 2008, 2009, and in 2011.
“Our rival’s strength is obvious. However, we have a chance [to win]. We are going to analyze the rival in depth and prepare for the game at our maximum,” Qarabağ's head coach Gurban Gurbanov told media last week.
Analysts identified Celtic, Astana’s rival on August 15, as the most difficult opponent for the Caspian teams, and Young Boys, which will square off against CSKA, as the easiest.
“CSKA pairs an easier rival, whom Qarabağ defeated in both home and away games in 2015. If Young Boys has not built a stronger squad since then, CSKA will be the winner of this pair,” Ismayilov told Caspian News. “Astana, I think, will not repeat its historical success for the second time this year. Their rival is a very strong team, Celtic.”
CSKA is arguably the most accomplished of all the clubs from the Caspian, having played in seven previous UEFA Champions Leagues in the past. In 2005 the team won the UEFA Cup and Super Cup titles.