LONDON (Reuters) - Champions League debutants Qarabag will offer novelty value to the group phase of Europe’s top club competition but the “Barcelona of the Caucasus”, as their fans like to refer to them, will not just be there for souvenirs.
Qarabag, founder members of the Azerbaijani Premier League in 1992, have won their national title four seasons in a row, and after three modest Europa League campaigns have now upgraded to rub shoulders with the elite.
That is thanks to a final qualifying round victory over Denmark’s FC Copenhagen — scraping through on away goals after the tie ended 2-2.
Before that they disposed of Georgian side Samtredia 6-0 on aggregate and overcame FC Sheriff Tiraspol of Moldova 2-1.
When they take to the field to play English champions Chelsea on Tuesday to become the first club from Azerbaijan to play in the tournament proper, it will mark an incredible journey for a club caught up in war in the 1990s.
Even now their home town of Aghdam is a shell, a legacy of occupation and bombing by forces from neighbouring Armenia in the fierce Nagorno-Karabakh War of the 1980s and 1990s, and their Imarat Stadium is reduced to rubble.
They play their home games 440km away in the capital Baku but despite being uprooted the club remains a great source of pride for Azerbaijan with most of the national team being made up of Qarabag players.
“This club means everything to the people of Azerbaijan. Our lands are being occupied. It’s through success with Qarabag that we bring that to the attention of the world,” the club’s head of communications, Nurlan Ibrahimov, told the Daily Telegraph.
The club, whose other nicknames include the Horsemen, is now bankrolled by a state-backed holding company Intersun and while most of the squad is Azeri, manager Gurban Gurbanov, his country’s leading international goalscorer, has some overseas journeymen to call on.
Spaniard Michel is joined in midfield by Brazilian loanee Pedro Henrique while at the back they boast Albania captain and left back Anso Agolli who played at Euro 2016. In goal they boast Bosnia international Ibrahim Sehic.
Norway’s Tariq Elyounouss joined during the summer to bolster the attacking options.
With Roma and Atletico Madrid also to play in Group C, few would give Qarabag much hope of reaching the knockout rounds, but Chelsea manager Antonio Conte will be taking nothing for granted on Tuesday, having played against Azerbaijan while in charge of Italy.
“Qarabag are a good team. I know a lot of their players very well because I played against Azerbaijan in qualifying when I was Italy coach. They have a lot of players who play for the national team,” the Italian said.
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Chopra