Irish champions Dundalk play a huge fixture on Wednesday evening as they host Qarabag in the first leg of this Champions League qualifier. The riches of reaching the group stage and the potential of setting up a glamour tie against the likes of Real Madrid and Juventus could have a transformational effect for the Irish side, but first they have to get past the Azerbaijani champions Qarabag, who have more of a track record.
Dundalk’s dream of the Champions League remains alive after an incredibly tense and cagey two-legged tie against Riga, which finished goalless after both legs, with the Irish side coming out on top on penalties in Latvia. Recent years have seen Dundalk fail to make it past Rosenborg, Legia Warszawa, but they’ll come into this encounter with some confidence, especially of their supreme defence – they’ve kept a clean sheet in nine of their last 12 games in all competitions. Domestically, they look set to retain their title with a five-point lead over Shamrock Rovers and a game in hand,
Unlike Dundalk, Qarabag don’t come into this fixture with the rhythm of regular football; they’ve only had friendlies to tide them over since the Azerbaijani league ended in May, apart from their last qualifier, a two-legged tie against Partizani Tirana, which was goalless in Albania before a 2-0 win for Qarabag in Azerbaijan. Friendly results over recent weeks include a 2-0 defeat to Ludogorets, a 2-1 win over Ufa and a 2-2 draw with Viktoria Plzen – a mixed record against sides that are generally matched for this early Champions League qualifying level.
Vinny Perth could go with the same line-up that drew 0-0 with Riga last week, with the focus on denying Qarabag an away goal. That means Gary Rogers in goal, Dane Massey, Sean Gannon, Andrew Boyle and Sean Hoare in the backline, with the only non-Irishmen potentially Dean Jarvis and Georgie Kelly, both English, to come off the bench. Pat Hoban, top scorer in the League of Ireland with 12 goals, will lead the line.
For Qarabag, Spanish striker Dani Quintana came off the bench against Partizan Tirani to totally secure qualification, scoring their second goal in the fourth minute of injury time at home in the second leg. That contribution could see him come back into the starting line-up in place of his fellow countryman, Jaime Romero, who scored two goals for Cordoba last season.
This is set to be a tetchy, low-scoring encounter if these two sides recent European results are anything to go back; Qarabag’s last away qualifier was a goalless draw, while there were no goals in either leg of Dundalk’s last match-up. As such, there’s a variety of bets worth backing based on this evidence; BTTS no is at 1.50, while a 0-0 draw in the first half is priced at 2.10.