Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is a metropolis full of contrasts. In the heart of the city, brickwork from the Middle Ages is seen alongside grand, magnificent buildings as well as ultramodern hotels, malls and cultural spaces. The Tofiq Bahramov adina Respublika Stadionu, where Qarabag have played their Europa League matches, falls into a fourth category: vintage. Only its roof can be seen from the street, with the pitch and its stands built under street-level. The ground is therefore even lower than the 28 metres under sea level which the city, located on the Caspian Sea, already finds itself.
Another contrast was that of the positions of the two sides before kick-off. Whilst SCF had already safely secured their place in the Europa League round of 16 as Group G winners with one game to spare last Thursday, Gurban Gurbanov’s side found themselves playing for second place in the group, fighting against Nantes who faced the already-eliminated Olympiacos at the same time.
Given they were already confirmed as group winners, Freiburg’s coaching staff decided to give some other players who hadn’t played too much recently an opportunity in the starting XI. Christian Günter was the only player who began the 2-0 victory away to Schalke and retained his place in tonight’s line-up, with Hugo Siquet, Kiliann Sildillia and Keven Schlotterbeck making up the remainder of the back four in front of Noah Atubolu in goal. Robert Wagner made his first start in midfield alongside Kevin Schade, Yannik Keitel and Noah Weißhaupt, and the front two comprised of Nils Petersen and Lucas Höler.
Petersen makes it 1-0
Qarabag, for whom a win ensured their place in the play-off round, began fiercely and created a decent chance for Kwabwena Owusu, whose effort was tipped behind for a corner thanks to a smart, reflex save from Atubolu.
It took almost a quarter of an hour for the much-changed Freiburg side to settle into the game against their brave and tactically flexible hosts, however they did start to see much more of the ball at this stage.
SCF were also starting to move the ball up the pitch, and they had referee Aleksei Kulbakov blowing for a penalty just past the twenty-minute mark. Noah Weißhaupt sent a chipped ball over the defence and put Kevin Schade in behind, whose staggering pace could only be halted by foul play. Nils Petersen stepped up to take the spot kick and fired the ball low into the bottom-right corner (25’).
Despite Freiburg taking the lead, the home end in the Tofiq Bahramov stadium remained in good spirits and got the Mexican wave going just after half an hour. The referee blew for half time following two minutes of stoppage time, and after going ahead, SCF managed to keep Qarabag as far away from their goal as possible up until the break.
VAR called into action
Shortly after half time, Kulbakov pointed to the spot for the second time that evening – on this occasion, in favour of the hosts. Hugo Siquet’s wild challenge on Marko Vesovic brought him to ground in the penalty area, and it was a clear decision (50’). However, a long VAR check followed, and the penalty was eventually chalked off because Vesovic was offside in the build-up to the foul.
The VAR official had more work to do just four minutes later. Whilst the crowd celebrated Qarabag’s equaliser after Vesovic fired low into the far corner, the build-up play was once again checked and due to another offside call, the goal was disallowed.
An end-to-end game emerged in a hectic second half. Mustafazada missed an open goal from five yards out with just half an hour to go, silencing the home end’s third true cry for a goal (59’). Two minutes later, Qarabag found themselves a man down. Kevin Medina committed a studs-up challenge on Kevin Schade, who subsequently had to go off injured. Kulbakov watched a replay and then decided to award a straight red card.
A stoppage-time equaliser
Despite the extra man, Freiburg were unable to completely calm the game down as their hosts continued to run their socks off. In fact, Gurban Gurbanov’s side, who paid the price for their aggressive tactics the longer the game went on, had the better of the chances. Nantes then took the lead against Olympiacos, which meant Qarabag needed two goals to progress through to the play-off round.
SCF conceded a header from Owusu Kwabena in the first of seven second-half stoppage-time minutes as the hosts found an equaliser (90’+1), but Freiburg were able to see out a point and maintain their unbeaten record in Group G. “We played against a very strong opponent in Qarabag today. Although it was eleven vs. ten, we were fortunate to come away with a point. We gave it our all, but Qarabag were very strong today,” summarised head coach Christian Streich after full time.
While Qarabag now move on to the play-off round in the UEFA Conference League, SC progress straight through to the round of 16 in the Europa League, which will restart in 2023. Their next match is a Bundesliga fixture on Sunday, where they welcome 1. FC Köln to the Europa-Park Stadion (kick-off 17:30 CET).
Photos: SC Freiburg