THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE continues on Wednesday night. Here Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) shares his verdict on the early kick-off between Qarabag and Roma.
Qarabag v Roma | Wednesday 27th September 2017, 17:00 | BT Sport
It’s easy to dismiss Qarabag after their white flag-waving exercise at Stamford Bridge during their Champions League group-stage debut. The Azerbaijani outfit gift-wrapped Chelsea half of their goals in a 6-0 thrashing at Stamford Bridge.
It was a one-sided contest, no doubt, but the Horseman were their own worst enemies in that encounter and it was interesting to note that Gurban Gurbanov’s troops only actually lost 2.20 – 0.20 on the Expected Goals count.
It was the joint-heaviest defeat by a Champions League debutant and so recency bias would have you believe Qarabag are out of their depth. I’m not going to contest such statements but I do believe the newcomers deserve our respect when they welcome Roma to the national stadium in Baku.
Qarabag's big occasion
It goes without saying that this is a huge occasion for Azerbaijani football. Gurbanov’s been in charge of the club for 10 years and has guided Qarabag to the title in each of their last four seasons, promoting local youth players and forming the backbone of the side for the national team.
Playing a pretty possession-style game in an unbeaten domestic campaign, Gurbanov’s likely to adopt a more defensive mind-set here with the Horseman highly-motivated in their quest to avoid another drubbing in what’s effectively the biggest match in the country’s history.
Azerbaijani clubs haven’t beaten Italian opposition in six meetings (W0-D2-L4) and their W2-D4-L3 return from nine group games in Europa League duty suggests they’re probably not going to pick up maximum points. But I guarantee this side will make life difficult for Roma.
Horsemen's resolute home performances
Only twice in seven years have Qarabag lost by a margin of two goals or more in Baku and although Spurs, Dnipro and Fiorentina have all won here in recent seasons, but all by the slimmest of margins. Indeed, Wednesday’s early kick-off is unlikely to be a one-sided contest.
Qarabag have seen Baku outings against St Etienne, Inter Milan, Monaco and Spurs feature no more than a solitary strike with 12/20 (60%) home European outings over the past three produce Under 2.5 Goals winners. Meanwhile, when Fiorentina won here last term, the first goal arrived after the hour mark.
I’m anticipating another defensively-organised performance from the Horseman and I’m happy to back Under 2.5 Goals at 117/100 with Marathon. I’d also recommend supporting the evens available at Paddy Power for the first goal to arrive after the 26th minute.
Considering the Azerbaijani national team are made-up mainly of Qarabag players, I thought it was worth noting that during qualifying action in the capital over the past few campaigns, Azerbaijan have seen 10/14 (71%) competitive ties bank in the Under 2.5 Goals column, two that didn’t were against San Marino and Germany.
These players are well adept at frustrating more illustrious opposition.
For Roma, the five-and-a-half hour flight is more of an inconvenience than a negative whilst the weather forecast has offered light relief. Baku is due showers on Wednesday following an extended spell of high temperatures and humidity.
The visitors have been chalked up around the 1/2 mark to win, odds that imply around a 67% chance of winning this showdown. That feels a little generous although they arrive on the back of a fairly decent 3-1 success at home to Udinese.
Nevertheless, they were totally out-played by Atletico Madrid at home – facing 10 efforts on-target and seeing their woodwork hit twice – and the Giallorossi were far from impressive when winning at Atalanta on the opening day, as well as being beaten by Inter Milan a week later.
New coach Eusebio Di Francesco has had to make-do without Mo Salah and Antonio Rudiger from last season and with a postponed game against Sampdoria, hasn’t had a huge amount of competitive football to watch over since arriving from Sassuolo.
Roma's wretched Champions League records
Finally, if you’re looking to oppose Roma it’s worth noting the visitors have only W1-D6-L7 in 14 Champions League games and are winless on their Champions League travels since 2010 (W0-D4-L5).
The Giallorossi are also without a clean sheet away from Rome in this competition in 21 matches since 2007.
Qarabag were available to support at a reasonable price with a +1.5 start on the Asian Handicap line but instead, I’m going to focus on the low-scoring element and hope the Horsemen can frustrate their more illustrious guests.
Qarabag v Roma – Under 2.5 Goals (117/100 Marathon)
Qarabag v Roma – Time of first goal 26th minute or after (1/1 Paddy Power)