By Andrew Flint, and Miloš Marković –
Group J: Qarabağ FK (Azerbaijan)
Tofiq Bahramov Stadium (capacity 31,200)
About the Club:
Qarabağ’s history is a poignant and tragic one, where their European escapes are a welcome highlight on an otherwise dark backdrop. Exiled from their home city of Agdam since 1993 due to the vicious Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, they have played their ‘home’ matches Baku’s the national stadium, named after the infamous moustached linesman in the 1966 World Cup Final.
Today Agdam is an eerie host town, after its 40,000 population either fled or were killed in a pre-emptive strike by Armenian and Karabakh forces that decimated the city. The team is the only remnant left, and despite relocating to the capital, they have shone brightly in recent years. Their first appearance in Europe came in the first ever staging of the Europa League in 2009-10, while domestically they have won the last two Azeri Premier League titles.
Brazilian duo Reynaldo and Richard are the star turns, having both signed three seasons ago. The former has scored 44 goals in the last two seasons, and possesses the dangerous combination of a powerful shot, impetuous confidence and a magical touch. Interestingly, they signed Cuban-born Swedish striker Samuel Armenteros from Group J rivals Anderlecht last week, but he is yet to make an appearance for his new side.
Gurban Gurbanov has been in charge for over seven years, and has an impressive record in charge having won just over half his matches. His talisman Reynaldo, Qarabağ’s all-time second highest goalscorer, usually starts as the mobile lone striker, often in front of a five man midfield away from home, with a lightning-quick counter – attacking style designed to unsettle opponents who are unfamiliar either them.
Know your Oligarch:
Taher Gozel. The Turkish vice president of Azersun, Azerbaijan’s premier food production company, is Qarabağ’s vice president. His company bailed the club out at the turn of the millenium after providing significant sponsorship funds, and continue to broadcast their name across the front of the shirts. He has even appeared on screen, in a documentary promoting Azeri business and in a film due out this year focusing on the team itself.
A glamorous tour of London, Monaco and Brussels to face Tottenham Hotspur, AS Monaco and RSC Anderlecht await to give the ambitious Azeris a tough task to qualify.
On paper, it is a tall order to expect progression from the group, but in the notoriously unpredictable waters of Europa League football, and with the distance for visitors a factor, the home fixtures against all three could offer opportunities for points.
What to expect:
Spurs traditionally don’t pay much heed to this level of continental competition, so could be there for the taking. Anderlecht are weakened by the departures of Aleksandar Mitrović and the dubiously-aged Chancel Mbemba to Newcastle United, so the most positive outcome would be second place. Realistically, I think they will fall just short and finish third.
You should be reading:
Group L: Partizan Belgrade (Serbia)
Partizan Stadium (Capacity 32,710)
About the Club:
Partizan are the most successful club in Serbia. They are the current champions who entered the group stage of the Europa League after having been previously eliminated from the UEFA Champions League playoffs by BATE Borisov.
The first Serbian club ever to take part in a European competition, Partizan Belgrade were also the first Eastern European club to play in the European Cup final in the 1955-56 season when they lost to Real Madrid.
Partizan are also the first, and so far the only Serbian club, to take part in the UEFA Champions League. The Serbian champions reached the group stage in 2003-04 having played in Group F against Olympic Marseille, Porto and Real Madrid. Most recently Partizan took part in the UEFA Champions league in 2010-11 when they also reached the group stage.
Having signed several players in the summer—the Bulgarian striker Valeri Bozinov was the most prominent one—Partizan had high hopes in their UEFA Champion League run. European football was the promise made to the fans and, by reaching the group stage of Europa League, they have achieved their goal.
Know your oligarch:
Partizan Belgrade is a sports association. The club is a member of the Yugoslav Sport Association Partizan that consists of 26 clubs in as many sports. Founded as an army club, Partizan gained its independence in 1950. With its ownership structure yet to be sorted out through the inevitable process of privatization, Partizan are a football organization with a management structure that consists of a Chairman, General Manager and General Secretary who are all directly elected by the club members at the Assembly. The current chairman of the club is Zoran Petrović, a businessman and owner of a private company.
Competing in Group L, Partizan Belgrade are opening the Europea League season against AZ Alkmaar from the Netherlands. The Dutch team qualified to the third round of the Europa League qualifiers after finishing third in Eredivisie last season. Last season marked AZ Alkmaar’s greatest Europa League success as they finished their European journey in the quarterfinals. The club will hope to have a good run this season as well, but it will be difficult without their top scorer of last season, the Serbian international Nemanja Gudelj who was transferred this summer to AFC Ajax.
The clear favourites of group L are Spanish: definitely Athletic Bilbao. Traditionally tough opponents, Los Leones, as they are called in Spain, opened the new season in La Liga with surprising back to back defeats to Barcelona at home and Eibar away. Ernesto Valverde’s team is not to be underestimated, however, as they will most certainly strive to make an impression in the European competition.
FC Augsburg, who finished fifth in the Bundesliga last season, qualified for the Europa League for the first time in the club’s history. The German club are currently fifteenth in the Bundesliga and are considered the underdogs in the Europa League Group L, but will be highly motivated in their debut season in a European competition.
What to expect:
Partizan fans have high hopes for this season’s edition of the Europa League. The Belgrade club intends to gather as many points as possible and to make an impression after the disappointing two points from two draws last season in the group stage of the Europa League when they played against Tottenham Hotspur, Beşiktaş and Asteras Tripoli.
Zoran Milinković’s men are very motivated to make an impact in their group. Lead by the young starlet Andrija Živković, one of the best yong wingers in Europe, and supported by the experienced Bozinov who made his name playing for the clubs like Fiorentina, Juventus and Manchester City, Partizan will want to prove themselves after their elimination from the Champions League play-offs.
You should be reading:
Andrew Flint is a English freelance football writer living in Tyumen, Western Siberia, with his wife and two daughters. He has featured on These Football Times, Russian Football News, Four Four Two and Sovetski Sport, mostly focusing on full-length articles about derbies, youth development and the game in Russia. Due to his love for FC Tyumen, he is particularly interested in lower league Russian football, and is looking to establish himself in time for the 2018 World Cup. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMijFlint.
A holder of Master’s degree in English language and literature, Miloš Marković is an Editor-in-Chief at Sportske.net. Passionate about English language and football, Miloš Marković is also a huge Premier League fan. You can find him on Twitter under