Josh Mart previews St Etienne’s opening Europa league fixture away to Qarabag of Azerbaijan. This is the first of many tough games in Group F for Les Verts, as they have been drawn alongside Dnipro and Italian giants Inter Milan as well as Qarabag of course. ASSE’s journey to the group stages was difficult as they just about overcame Turkish outfit Karabukspor in a nervy penalty shootout. Travelling will be a key issue for Galtier and his players, with their journey to the Caspian Sea region being a 10,000 kilometre round trip to Baku, where Qarabag, despite originating from ghost town Agdam, play their home matches. They will also face a difficult and chilly trip to Ukraine in December as well as a daunting trip to the San Siro. Home games will be crucial to St Etienne’s chances of progression to the knockout phase but points on the road could decide the difference between success and glory.
Qarabag have started the domestic season in Azerbaijan in quite an inconsistent manner, with a win, a defeat and 2 draws leaving them in 6th place currently. However, Saturday’s 3-0 win away at AZAL at the weekend will give ‘The Horsemen’ some confidence prior to the visit of St Etienne. Qarabag failed to qualify for the Champions League despite winning the domestic league in Azerbaijan last season as they were beaten in qualifying by Red Bull Salzburg but then impressively beat Dutch side FC Twente in qualifying for the Europa League. The Azerbaijani outfit will know that their home games will be important as it is an unknown prospect for the likes of St Etienne and Inter, so they will undoubtedly be quietly confident in this match.
St Etienne currently sit in 4th place in the Ligue 1 standings and they will be relatively happy with their start to the new season. A hammering at the hands of PSG excluded, Galtier’s men are yet to lose domestically this season and beat newly promoted SM Caen at the weekend. Galtier will be looking for his team to achieve more in Europe this year after they failed to qualify for the competition this time last season losing to Danish side Esbjerg in qualifying. Like a few of the other teams in the group, home form will be crucial as the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, the home of St Etienne, is an extremely hostile and atmospheric place, particularly for the big matches. ASSE will be looking to gain a positive result in Baku though, with Qarabag ranked as the lowest side in the group from qualifying, as it could massively enhance their chances of advancing from the group stages.
Team News and Tactics
I expect the hosts to line-up in a variation of the 4-5-1 formation with strong influence from their sizeable foreign contingent. Medvedev and Agolli are likely to be the full backs and Guseynov is set to start at the heart of the defence. The talented Brazilian Chumbinho is likely to start in midfield alongside anchor-man Garayev, with Leroy George and Richard on the flanks. The main attacking threat will come from Reynaldo who scored in the weekend win at AZAL and possibly Macedonian Muarem.
St Etienne has a few injury concerns for the trip to Baku as new signing Ricky van Wolfswinkel along with Perrin, Theophile-Catherine miss out. Perhaps more crucially though, key players such as Hamouma and Tabanou have also been left behind due to injury. With this in mind, I would expect Galtier to start with a rather cautious 4-5-1 with Brison filling in for Tabanou at left back and Clerc coming in for Catherine at right back. Pogba and Sall are set to start at centre back with Clement and Lemoine sitting in front of the back four. Gradel and Monnet-Paquet could start on the flanks with Corgnet behind the impressive Mevlut Erdinc. The lack of firepower at Galtier’s disposal could be problematic here, as many inexperienced players may have to be thrown onto the bench.
Reynaldo (Qarabag) – Reynaldo has proved a massive hit since signing for Qarabag in 2013, scoring more than a goal every other game. The former Anderlecht man prefers playing off a main striker due to his small stature but possesses the typical Brazilian traits of quick feet and a clear eye for goal.
Erdinc (ASSE) – Mevlut Erdinc was looked at by many clubs across Europe before he finally decided to join St Etienne in 2013. The Turkish international has started the season in fine form scoring 3 goals in 5 appearances and his aerial prowess is likely to cause Qarabag problems if the right service can be provided without Hamouma.
Without so many key players, it’s hard to make too strong a case for St Etienne, especially when one takes into account the long distance travelled by Galtier and his men. However, despite all these things pointing towards a Qarabag victory, St Etienne should still be able to compete given the relative qualities of the two sides and the two leagues. I expect a tight game with not too much in the way of goal mouth action. A point here would be a good result for ASSE. Qarabag’s official Facebook page posted a picture of Les Verts’ players training yesterday and captioned it “Welcome to Hell”, a suggestion of the level of physicality this game might be played with by the Azerbaijani outfit.
Prediction: Qarabag 1-1 St Etienne