Belfast Telegraph

Azerbaijan's future is bright with new youth policies and ambitious Prosinecki at helm

By Julian Taylor

Maybe it is their status of being on the geographical outer wing of Europe, staring into the Caspian Sea, or their lack of recognisable names which makes you consider Azerbaijan the genuine mystery men of international football.

Yet ahead of a World Cup qualifying showdown, as far as Northern Ireland are concerned, whether in Belfast or Baku, this is an outfit transparent with danger.

Under the supervision of the ultra-cautious Berti Vogts, the Azeris claimed a 1-1 draw in the World Cup qualifiers in 2012. A sublime strike by Rauf Aliyev left Michael O'Neill frustrated, with the Northern Ireland manager still looking for a maiden victory in his regime at that point.

A year later, his men also slumped to a 2-0 defeat in the Baku return encounter.

The contemporary Azerbaijan are coached by Robert Prosinecki, the former classy Croatia midfielder. Prosinecki's task is to somehow guide the south Caucasus nation to a first ever major tournament.

And to quote Aliyev - a player who appears to have lost his touch since bending a goal past Roy Carroll at Windsor Park four years ago - "He is a bad soldier who does not want to become a general."

Quite an appropriate metaphor for the improving, ambitious Azeris. They currently sit second in Group C behind overwhelming favourites Germany, and are in contention for a coveted play-off place.

Daryl Willard is the former Sporting Director of the Azerbaijan FA. Having spent six years there recently, the Englishman has observed significant changes in the national structure and believes Prosinecki is making a difference.

"So much seems to have changed with new players coming in over the last couple of years, but Robert Prosinecki has got the team playing with a lot more belief and confidence," Willard told the Belfast Telegraph.

"The first thing he did when he came in was to get the team playing proper football. He was a really gifted player himself so he knew what he wanted.

"He has come in and wants the team to play with a lot more freedom and to go out and attack the opposition, whereas before that would have been lacking under the previous regime. They (Azerbaijan) are a lot more expressive these days, compared to before when it was all mainly about being focused on defensive strategies.

"There was a high reliance on trying to get goals on the break and from set plays."

The Prosinecki qualifier project is full of promise, with 1-0 victories over both Norway and San Marino plus a scoreless draw in the Czech Republic. O'Neill is acutely aware of the threat.

Willard continued: "The game against the Czechs they probably should have won, but the Norway result was a fantastic achievement and it probably could have been more (goals scored).

"You look at a player like Rashad Sadygov with over 100 caps - he is a national hero for Azerbaijan, a national treasure. He could have gone on to big things but he stayed on to play his club football at home, so he is a really key player for the national team.

"Michael O'Neill will have done his homework on him and the rest of the Azerbaijan side. He'll know exactly who's who.

"After that result against Norway you can be sure the confidence will be sky high going into this game. Robert Prosinecki will have done all his research into Northern Ireland, I'm certain of that. The players will know they can go to Belfast believing in themselves."

At Azeri club level, however, the oil-fuelled days of largesse are mainly a thing of the past, with one of the major clubs, Neftchi Baku, paying a heavy price. They are now in turmoil and lost 8-0 to Gabala recently. Both Gabala and Qarabag are the leading lights, presently involved in the group stages of the Europa League, and between them supply much of the international squad.

Willard explained: "After good results like Norway, and the progress of Qarabag and Gabala, people in Azerbaijan take a lot more interest. With Qarabag and Gabala featuring in the Europa League group stages, it gives players a lot more exposure at the top level against the best teams in Europe. The youth players that are coming in are also of a better standard than the past.

"Football has a higher profile than before and this younger generation of footballers are involved a lot more. Six years ago there was no youth policy at all in the country. Now you have levels right from Under-9s to Under-17s up and running."

All things considered, how does Willard see tomorrow night's vital clash going?

"The Norway win will not be a one-off for Azerbaijan," he said. "I'm sure it's going to be a very interesting game, although I don't think either team will score many. Northern Ireland will have a better chance of scoring from corners as they have more physical presence. I'll probably go for 1-0 to Northern Ireland."

O'Neill and his players would, you imagine, happily settle for such an outcome.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph