A second-half fightback in Gibraltar has the Azeri champions in the driving seat approaching the return leg at Baku National Stadium.
Victory at Victoria Stadium was seen by most Qarabag fans as a formality before last Tuesday’s first leg, so a shock was in store for the Baku club’s faithful when their team trailed by a goal heading towards the final half-hour.
After Lincoln Red Imps took the lead through Kike Gomez in the 25th minute – which proved to be their only shot on goal throughout the game – the hosts held firm until Redon Xhixha produced a 58th-minute equaliser, and only a stoppage-time strike from substitute Yassine Benzia secured a 2-1 win for Gurban Gurbanov’s men.
Once again, the Azerbaijan Premier League winners are seeking to translate domestic dominance into qualification for the Champions League group stage, and having retained their top-flight title by racking up 90 points last term, expectations are rising that they can do just that.
Indeed, Qarabag sealed their 10th Azeri championship triumph by finishing nine points better off than second-placed Sabah, and with a total of 91 goals scored they certainly do not lack firepower in the final third.
Only once before, though, have they reached the hallowed Champions League group phase – back in the 2017-18 campaign – despite never failing to reach at least the third round of qualifying.
Europa Conference League participants over the past two years, the consequence of Qarabag slipping up and losing their first-round tie this summer would be dropping into the third qualifying round of Europe’s third-tier competition.
Instead, Gurbanov – who has been in situ since 2008 – will target progress in UEFA’s top tournament, where either Polish champions Rakow Czestochowa or Estonia’s Flora will await in the second round later this month.
However, having battled hard during the home leg to keep themselves in the tie, Lincoln Red Imps are sure to fancy they can still pull off an improbable comeback and claim a spot in the next stage.
While they could not retain their advantage during a close-fought affair at Victoria Stadium, the Gibraltar National League champions – who won last term’s title with just two losses and finished eight points clear – can call upon plenty of recent European experience to aid them.
Lincoln competed in the group stage of the 2021-22 Europa Conference League, breaking new ground for football on the Iberian island, before exiting last year’s Champions League qualifiers 3-2 on aggregate to FC Shkupi in the opening round.
The 27-time champions of Gibraltar would suffer a similar fate should they come up short on Wednesday, but another crack at the Conference League may ultimately prove more suitable for a club of their stature.
Qarabag FK Champions League form:
Lincoln Red Imps Champions League form:
We say: Qarabag FK 2-0 Lincoln Red Imps (Qarabag win 4-1 on aggregate)
Despite struggling to break down an obdurate Lincoln side last week, Qarabag possess plenty of attacking talent and have options that can change a game from off the bench. With their lead still a slim one, the hosts will still be motivated to go for goals, before stepping off the gas once the job is all but done.