Azerbaijan sit bottom of Group A with one point from five games. That point was earned last month in the Aviva Stadium, when a late Shane Duffy header cancelled out Emim Mahmudov’s first half wonder-strike.
In their previous qualifiers, a late Maksim Medvedev own goal gave Portugal all three points in March, before a Mitrovic brace saw Serbia beat them 2-1. Losses to Luxembourg and Portugal followed either side of their trip to Dublin in September.
Captain Mahmudov has scored four goals in this campaign, while Qarabag’s Ramil Sheydayev is a threat also, with seven goals in his 38 caps to date. Mahir Emereli is also set to feature, having featured in all of Azerbaijan’s qualifiers so far.
Despite just two wins in his sixteen games in charge, head coach Giovanni De Biasi isn’t feeling the pressure, and spoke to Trevor Stynes of the Irish Examiner ahead of the game.
“In Dublin we played a good game, especially in the opening half. In the second half we had more difficulty in controlling the game and we didn’t manage to take home the three points, which would have been amazing for us. It’s a pity, because for Ireland’s goal we could have done much better, and more than one of our players committed naïve mistakes.”
“Ireland is a team which looks to play out from the back, starting with the goalkeeper. It has good qualities, both technical and physical, but it probably still hasn’t found an identity and a balance.”
De Biasi also spoke highly of a few of Kenny’s players, “Shane Duffy for his physicality and of course he scored the header against us. Adam Idah looks like a great prospect, and I was very impressed with Gavin Bazunu. He’s a very young keeper, with good technical ability.”
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND
Ireland come into Saturday’s qualifier having taken only two points from their five qualifiers. Late equalisers against Azerbaijan and Serbia came following a gut-wrenching 2-1 loss away to Portugal last month, in what some called Ireland’s best performance in years, having led until the 89th minute.
With World Cup qualification now a pipe dream, Stephen Kenny has three qualifiers (and one friendly) remaining to convince the FAI board to extend his contract to the Euro 2024 campaign.
Every Ireland game under Kenny has been preceded by intense debates about the state of Irish football, and the direction it’s heading in. Supporters on one side, who have been enthralled by the side’s change in approach, are willing to sacrifice some results in the hope that Kenny’s plan will bear fruit by the time Germany 2024 comes around.
The introduction of emerging young players (12 debuts) coupled with impressive away performances against Serbia and Portugal have had supporters defending Kenny, who has also dealt with a tsunami of Covid related squad issues since he took over.
Then there is the other side of the fence. Many feel that anything less than two wins from our remaining three qualifiers will mean the end for Kenny’s reign. Putting aside any context, the facts make for grim reading. One win from sixteen games in charge, a 4-1 friendly victory over Andorra have some supporters’ patience wearing thin. A heart-breaking Euro 2020 playoff defeat last year came in between a dismal Nations League campaign. Despite some encouraging performances, the fact that Ireland’s World Cup hopes were over after two games is just unacceptable for some. Ireland have not won a competitive game since June 2019, and Kenny will need to change that in Baku if he is to get his wish and lead Ireland to Euro 2024.
"We've come here to win. Azerbaijan, as we know from the match at home, present a difficult challenge but one we're looking forward to”, Kenny said speaking to the press ahead of the game.
"Serbia came here and only won due to two late goals so they will be a different proposition at home, but we do expect to have a go and come out and play against us.
"We've got to focus on ourselves and the qualities we have. We've had a really good week of training, two days at Abbottstown, travelled out here and then two days out here. We're ready for the challenge and we're looking forward to it."
Captain for the evening John Egan also spoke to the media.
“It's a game we're desperate to win and we'll be doing everything we can to get that done. We've trained really well; everyone is right at it and we're ready to get the win.
"Azerbaijan are a difficult outfit as they showed in Dublin, but we know that if we can play the way we know we can play, we will get the victory we need and want as a group."
Referee: Espen Eskas (Norway)
This is just the second ever meeting between the sides.
The Republic of Ireland are currently 50th in the FIFA rankings, compared to Azerbaijan in 117th place.
Ireland have taken the lead first in both away fixtures in this qualifying campaign, although they ended up on the losing side.
Ireland have won none of their opening five qualifiers so far. The last time an Ireland side went a whole campaign without winning was in Euro 1972 qualifying.
Azerbaijan 1 - 2 Republic of Ireland
Republic of Ireland
Injured: Dara O’Shea, Seamus Coleman, Ryan Manning
Doubtful: Jason Knight, Adam Idah
Suspended: Jayson Molumby, Alan Browne