Qarabağ Pay the High Price of Naïvete

Satish Sekar
By Satish Sekar October 30, 2017 12:01

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Qarabağ Pay the High Price of Naïvete

By Satish Sekar at Stamford Bridge © Satish Sekar (September 12th 2017)

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Despite the inclement weather Chelsea signalled their intent on their return to Champions League football with a 6-0 thrashing of Azerbaijaan’s refugee team, Qarabağ. ‘Expelled’ from their traditional homeland and support, the Azeri team are proud – they are the first team from their nation to reach the Champions League Group Stage.

However, they got a harsh lesson on the requirements of playing at the top level of European competition. Their defending was school-boy football at best – Chelsea will face stiffer tests. Pedro Rodríguez opened the scoring with less than 5 minutes played – a curling effort from just outside the area. Not for the last time tonight Willian played a pivotal role – providing the assist. The writing had been on the wall two minutes earlier as Marcos Alonso saw his effort parried by Ibrahim Šehić.

Qarabağ’s keeper did well to deny Willian after a 1-2 with Michy Batshuayi created the opportunity. Batshuayi could not convert the rebound from a tight angle. Debutant Alberto Zappacosta was found by a sumptuous pass by Cesc Fàbregas, but his header was clawed away by Šehić, although an offside flag meant it would not have counted anyway.

With just under half an hour played Thibault Courtois rolled the ball out to Zappacosta. The former Atalanta defender surged forward down the right flank before letting fly from 25 yards out. Graciously he acknowledged that he had meant to cross rather than shoot, but nevertheless he was the first to bag his opening Champions League goal for Chelsea tonight.

Deluge

It could have been worse for the Azeris if Alonso had not failed to control Willian’s pass just before the break, but it hardly mattered. Shortly after the break a crude shove on Willian by Donald Guerrero was rightly penalised and punished. A short freekick to Fàbregas resulted in the Spaniard finding César Azpilicueta with a glorious outside of the foot pass. Azpilicueta added Chelsea’s third – his first Champion’s League goal.

“Last season he has been one of the most important players for us”, Antonio Conte said of the Spanish defender. “In the last 4 seasons he has been one of the best central defenders for us. For a coach to have him is a dream”.

Just after the hour mark Tiemoué Bakayoko replaced N’Golo Kanté, and after Willian had cut in from the left before unleashing a spectacular effort that beat the keeper, but grazed the bar, the former Monaco player opened his Chelsea Champion’s League account from close range. It was a scrappy effort of rebounds that fell kindly, but neither Bakayoko nor Chelsea cared.

Five minutes later Bakayoko turned provider, feeding Batshuayi to slot it past a forlorn Šehić from 20 yards out. Qarabağ’s learning curve was completed in teeming rain as they twice failed to clear in the final ten minutes, managing somehow to gift possession to Zappacosta. Batshuayi’s shot from his pass was deflected in off Maksim Medvedev. The goal was at first credited to Batshuayi, but eventually given as an own goal.

No Refuge

Gurban Gurbanov is one of his country’s best ever players and has coached Qarabağ for the best part of a decade. “Unfortunately our land has been occupied by Armenian forces”, he said. “This makes us stronger and have more success for the future. I’m proud to lead this club”. Qarabağ was displaced during the war over Nagorno-Karabakh – hence their title ‘the Refugees’ Team’.

“This is first for Azerbaijan, and it’s a first for us”, he said. “This is a big success for us and I believe it will help Azerbaijan’s football. We always wanted to be in this tournament, and we are happy that we are in this competition”.

That said he acknowledged the gulf in class and the lessons they must learn. “Chelsea are the favourites for the whole competition”, Gurbanov said. “We made mistakes and must learn from this, but I’m still proud of the way we played”.

Meanwhile, Atlético de Madrid and Roma drew 0-0. Chelsea therefore top the group.

Satish Sekar
By Satish Sekar October 30, 2017 12:01