Tuesday 20 August 2019

Qarabag power will examine Dundalk

Perth's team facing a new force with emotive history

Different perspective: Dundalk’s record scorer Patrick Hoban was in England for the Lilywhites’ memorable run in 2016. Photo: Ben McShane/Sportsfile
Different perspective: Dundalk’s record scorer Patrick Hoban was in England for the Lilywhites’ memorable run in 2016. Photo: Ben McShane/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Vinny Perth spoke yesterday about the sense that the whole country is rowing behind Dundalk when it comes to a big European match.

For Qarabag, the side that will sample the delights of Oriel Park for tonight's hugely significant Champions League clash, that statement takes on a very literal meaning.

This is Azerbaijan's team.

Perth was speaking about the congratulations he received in Tallaght last Thursday when he went to watch Shamrock Rovers, and messages that the Connacht-born members of his squad had received from home. He did also receive a letter from President Higgins in the aftermath of the dramatic penalty shoot-out win over Riga that set up this tie.

In Qarabag, the influence of the authorities has helped to pay the bills and turn them into regulars in group stage football. A state-backed holding company has powered their rise, and with little opposition because it is tied in with the country's recent history and an emotive subject that gained worldwide attention in May when safety fears prevented Armenian Henrikh Mkhitaryan from going to Baku for the Europa League final.

That's because of the Nagorno-Karabakh War, a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan across the 1980s and early '90s. Around 25,000-35,000 people died and hundreds of thousands on both sides of the conflict were displaced.

The area is in Azerbaijani territory, but heavily populated by ethnic Armenians and ownership of the Nagorno-Karabakh region is disputed by both sides.

Mountainous Qarabag FK was founded in Agdam, a town situated in the mountainous south-west of Azerbaijan.

In 1993, Armenian forces took over Agdam after a spell of sustained bombing that forced the population to flee. Today, it is effectively a ghost town, often described as the 'Hiroshima of the Caucasus'.

Tough times followed for the Azeri club, but the state-backed revival of their fortunes began around the turn of the century and there were heavy political undertones.

Qarabag now play out of the capital Baku, and their football exploits have helped to put the name on the map. The wider world think of Azerbaijan when they think of Qarabag and that serves its purpose.

Dundalk chairman Mike Treacy said last week that they are an example for ambitious outfits to follow, but the reason for their rise is unique.

From a football perspective, though, they have managed to attract a talented group of players who play a quick, technical style that will pose the natives problems. Riga were physical and sturdy whereas Qarabag are a different kettle of fish; three key players are Spaniards.

"We'd see these as the type of side that would cause British and Irish sides more problems in terms of one-touch football," said Perth.

"But we've also seen areas where we can exploit them."

Dundalk's attacking players found it hard in the scoreless tie with Riga and the return of Michael Duffy will help them on the break.

Top scorer Patrick Hoban found aspects of the Latvian jaunt frustrating, and is hoping to find a bit more room in this encounter.

He was in England for Dundalk's memorable run in 2016, recalling the frustrations of the near miss to Legia Warsaw as a TV viewer.

Hoban has secured his place in the Louth club's history as their record scorer, yet a proper European adventure is an unchecked box.

"The only thing that beats playing Champions League football is international football for me," says the Galwegian. "It's the pinnacle of your career.

"You might play 200 or 300 League of Ireland games but you might only play a handful of Champions League games. You have to grab it by both hands and make sure you're on it. These are great memories."

For Dundalk goalkeeper Gary Rogers, tonight promises to be a special occasion as a 42nd appearance in Europe puts him to the top of the all-time League of Ireland list.

The hosts will be hoping he's not too busy as they seek a result that will keep the tie alive for their 5,000km journey to another world.

Dundalk v Qarabag, Live, eir Sport, 7.45

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