Another series of matches as part of the European qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup have ‘died down’ and now the attention is again turned to domestic championships and European Cups. The next matches are due only in November. So, until then, there is much time left to discuss the results and analyze the chances. Fortunately, Azerbaijani football fans also have something to talk about.
Country’s national team, led by the Croat head coach, Robert Prosinečki, made a rather brisk start in the current cycle. In September, the national team won the away match against San Marino. However, that success didn’t bring any particular joy. The team played too lackadaisically, without any initiative and even a bit cowardly. Due to that, Prosinečki and Co. got their portion of criticism from nearly everyone, be it the President of the Association of Football Federations of Azerbaijan (AFFA), Rovnag Abdullayev, or the average football fans. The Croat assured, he focused more on the results and that the game would improve by the next matches. And he kept his word.
This month, Azerbaijan national team was in for 2 much more important and difficult duel meets-with Norway (home game) and the Czech Republic (away game). Coincidentally, both teams showed up for the matches against us a little bit offended. The Scandinavians, for example, arrived in Baku after being drubbed by Germany (0:3) at home, and they were going to take it out on less menacing Azerbaijanis. But it was not to be.
Prosinečki warned right from the very beginning that he wasn’t going to put up with failures. He claimed, he saw the potential in the present composition of the team, and the players, who are working a lot on themselves, could gain momentum and offer a battle to any competitor, irrespective of their status and big titles. In this regard, Norway is far from being the most important rival. Therefore, Azerbaijan decided not to put off solving the task. Already on the 11th minute of the match at Baku Olympic Stadium, the hosts took the lead through the efforts of Maksim Medvedev, a defender, who appeared at the right time in the right place. Quick score, the crowd’s support, a prospect for good bonuses for the victory- what else does a football player need in order not to lose his motivation and fight till the end?
Not without luck, but the Azerbaijani team managed to maintain its winning score and chalked up the second consecutive victory, which it had never done before. By the way, the victory over Norway was also the first one in the team’s history. Following the game, the team with its head coach were awarded some flattering words and congratulations, whereas Prosinečki himself grimly blamed journalists for being pessimistic- sort of ‘I’ve always believed in the guys, and you haven’t, so don’t regard the victory over the Norwegians as a sensation.
Furthermore, Azerbaijan national team left for an away game to the Czech Republic, which in the last run of the cycle managed to lose to same old Germans by the same score (0:3), as well as to tie the score in a home game against Northern Ireland (0:0). And who do you think should have found himself in the heat of the moment? That’s right! In their pre-match statements, the Czech players talked about Azerbaijan national team’s success not without sniping. They couldn’t even assume that the guests from the Caucasus could be hurt by that. Karel Jarolím, the Czech football team coach, went even further, claiming that he wasn’t familiar with Prosinečki’s capacity as a coach. He said, the latter allegedly had been a good footballer, playing for Real and Barcelona, but had he succeeded as a coach? No, I’m not sure …
The guests showed up for the match in Ostrava with certain personnel losses- Rashad Sadygov, a captain and a record-breaker by the number of games played for the national team, found himself on the sidelines due to an undertreated injury. He was substituted by Bedavi Huseynov, who missed the past two months due to a serious trauma.
The Czechs tried to slot through the opponent from a remote distance, trying to build combinations, to attack through the flanks, but all in vain. Prosinečki’s team acted like a spring – it shrank at the right time on its own half of the field and dramatically unfolded and itself posed a threat to the opponent in its goal area. The Czechs almost let in the goal several times during the match, which caused their quite understandable panic and made them play more attentively.
In fairness it must be admitted that Azerbaijan national team was a bit into luck in Ostrava. The opponents looked much more active and faster. But what one can do without luck in sports? After all, even the greatest athletes aren’t always the strongest in each part of absolutely all duel meets.
Anyway, a draw could be chalked up to Prosinečki’s team. The team is now rated the 2nd in the group, with the total points amounting to 7, and is named as one of the claimants for entering the World Cup’s final stage. The pleasant fact is that Azerbaijan is among those four teams, that haven’t let in a single goal in the present qualifiers (alongside with Germany, England and Belgium).
The AFFA’s selected motto for the national team in this qualification cycle is: ‘Niyə də yox’? (which is translated as ‘Why not’?). It is mentioned at almost every turn: on the posters and match tickets, in the official statements and in the informal conversations, at the briefings, during the news conferences and even on social media. It seems that football community itself has believed in the ‘power of words’ and now expects new successes from Azerbaijan nation team. Indeed, why not?