Today it was announced that Neftçi PFK have hired 30 year old Englishman Ash Walker to take charge at the Bakcell Arena, replacing former Head Coach Samir Abbasov.
Abbasov left his role in the Capital after successfully guiding the club to their first League title for 8 years, ending Qarabag's domestic dominance in the process.
Despite ending Qarabag's dominance in the summer, the media still expect things to go 'back to normal' and predict Neftçi to finish 2nd in the upcoming season.
Neftçi play host at the Bakcell Arena which lies deep within the capital of Azerbaijan, the stadium was built in 2012 however unfortunately it doesn't meet UEFA requirements for the time being all European games will be hosted at the 60,000 seater Olympic Stadium until this is improved.
This may take a while however, as after looking at the finances of the club, any deep upgrades within look as though this may be quite a while off improving.
'It is an honour to be sat here in front of you all today in this beautiful city. I look forward to the challenge ahead here at Neftçi, and I plan on carrying on the great work that Samir put in place here last season.
I am here for the long term, and with a strict plan of what I want to achieve here and it is simple, I want to become dominant domestically, and challenge our neighbouring countries, European powerhouses and in the process make the sport of Football something that the Azeri's can be proud of.'
Season 1 - Update 1 - Meeting The Squad and Figuring Out Our Plans
From when we arrived at the club I was kind of caught in 2 minds. I could see the potential within the club regarding some of the players, but there was also parts of the club which were far behind where they should be for what I expected.
The balance of the club was the first thing that worried me, as I have European aspirations from the get go, but the balance was sitting at £40,000, and this included a transfer budget of £0 and a wage budget of £53,000, which we had already maxed out.
Therefore straight away I knew we had to search the club and try and find ways to trim this down, and this is where I started looking at the players I had available to me.
The Azeri league is a relatively small league of only 8 teams, some of which are still not professional, however we play each other 4 times so the league season lasts 28 games. There is also a domestic cup which features 16 teams and the Semi Final is a 2 legged affair, so if we want to do well we will have quite a few games to play also depending on how we get on in Europe.
Ideally the squad is perfect as it is, but there was some players that were just not good enough, and if we receive a few injuries then the gulf in class between our potential starting 11 and substitutes is very alarming.
After skimming through what we have available, I picked out the players in which I think were key for us going forward, at least for the first season anyway.
The first one was Aqil Mammedov in goal, I didn't see him as key because of his quality as a player as such, but the Azeri league requires you have 3 home grown local players in your starting 11 at all times, and my plan is to always field one between the sticks. He is experienced, and should be able to hold his own, at least for now.
In terms of the defence, the first person that stood out to me when I met the players was this guy. Vojislav was a unit to say the least. An experienced Serbian centre half, 6 foot 3 and 14 stone, even capped at International level once upon a time. I wouldn't want to be marked by this guy, and within the first few training sessions I knew this guy would be key, also my captain.
The complete opposite of Vojislav was this little guy, Jorge had spent the majority of his career in the Argentinian top flight, before a recent spell over in Maritimo. This guy oozed class and the ball stuck to his feet like glue in training, taking the p*** at times he made it look so easy. I have no doubts he will be a key man cutting in from the right hand side onto his left foot, terrorising teams in the process.
The last was Harramiz, nothing particular made him stand out right away, but an experienced lad who was an international, and could play on either wing or up front. He had absolutely dedicated himself to the game and is the first to arrive and last to leave at training, I can already see that he will run through brick walls for me which I absolutely love.
After reviewing the squad, the first thing that stood out to me more than anything else was the fact we hadn't a left back in the entire club. This had to be my number 1 priority, and something that needed to be addressed as soon as possible.
I didn't have time to mess around however, as after taking charge of the club we had the small matter of our first game in our Champions League run. A ridiculously tough test at the first qualifying round against Croatian side Dinamo Zagreb in just 3 days time.
Once I had met the players and had several training sessions under our belts, it was time to draw up the formation and tactics for the season.
I have several good wingers available to me and because of this my focus is to use them to their maximum potential. Therefore we will be lining up in a 4-3-3 with a deep lying playmaker to try and dictate the game when on the ball, and off the ball put up a high intense press and defending from the front, something that the players will have to quickly get used to as it is very physically demanding.
Unfortunately however, the Azeri transfer window is not open until the end of the month, so despite making plans on how and where to strengthen the squad, none of this could be put in place in time before our European fixtures, which was a real kick in the teeth, so the plan in the meantime was to play Mamadou Mbodj on the left side of the defence away from his usual centre back role until we could bring a natural left back in. Then before we knew it, the time had come for our first match in charge, heading to Zagreb to take on Dinamo in the Champions League First Qualifying Round.
July's Champions League Results
UEFA Champions League Champions Qualifying Path - First Round - First Leg:
In what turned out to be a very tight affair, the team put in a fantastic effort to come away from Zagreb with what was a great win. Fringe player Rahman Haciyev with a late winner in a match we were 2nd best in to put us in with a great shout in the return leg.
UEFA Champions League - Champions Qualifying Path - First Round - Second Leg:
The return leg was played at the 60,000 seater Olympic Stadium in Baku, Harramiz scored just before half time to put us on the verge of qualification, however a late double from Dino Peric and a Komnen Andric penalty forced extra time. It was there that French midfield maestro Romain Basque, and super sub Lawal turned the game on it's head again to put us through unexpectedly. The away goal rule being scrapped was our saviour in this one.
UEFA Champions League - Champions Qualifying Path - Second Round First Leg:
The reward in the next round was a much easier tie on paper against Irish side Shamrock Rovers, we steamrolled them in Baku to all but book our place in the next round, thanks to a brace from Brazilian ST Ramon.
UEFA Champions League - Champions Qualifying Path - Second Round Second Leg:
We decided to rotate the squad in Ireland for the return leg, and things got a little worrying as we found ourselves 3-0 down at HT. However, 2 early second half goals from Mahmudov and our reserve CB Celik saw us through, despite another brief scare before the end in which we conceded another a goal. Fair play to Shamrock for not giving up on that one.
Our reward for navigating through in Ireland, is a tie against Scottish Champions Rangers in the Third Qualifying Round at the start of August in what will be another difficult task.
We also played out a couple of friendly matches in between our Champions League matches in July, this was to just keep the sharpness up on the lads that were in and around the team going into our domestic season.
The first was a game against our City neighbours FK Baku, they are in the lower leagues and we got a routine 1-6 win without ever really breaking sweat despite us scoring the last 4 goals in the final 5 minutes.
The only other friendly was at home against Turkish side Trabzonspor, this was a good test for us and on the day they just had that extra bit about them to turn us over 0-1 thanks to an Abdulkadir Omur strike early in the second half.
Season 1 - Update 3 - August Update - So Near, Yet So Far.
August was a very busy month for us, we had the 2 Champions League ties at Rangers to play, before our first 2 domestic league matches against Qabala and Zira respectively, as well as lots of off the field work with planning to bring in some extra personnel to bolster the squad.
Augusts Champions League Results
UEFA Champions League Champions Qualifying Path - Third Round - First Leg:
Wow, what a game! This match had it all, Steven Davis scored a stunning long range goal in the first 5 minutes which made us fear the worst, but we showed real spirit in the 2nd half and it was capped off with a last minute winner by Paraguayan winger Colli.
UEFA Champions League Champions Qualifying Path - Third Round - Second Leg:
A tough pill to swallow here. We started off perfectly when our captain Stankovic headed us in front from a set piece. But Ianis Hagi scored 2 set pieces of his own before Sakala put the knife through our hearts late on to send us out of the Champions League and into the Europa League Playoff, where Austrian side Sturm Graz await.
August's Europa League Results
UEFA Europa League Playoff - First Leg:
Unfortunately we never got started in this one, we conceded 2 first half goals on the counter and we couldn't recover. We have an almighty task in the second leg to try and turn this around in Austria.
UEFA Europa League Playoff - Second Leg:
The less said about this the better, over the 2 legs we just could not handle Kevin Yeboah. The young Italian had pace in abundance, and a finish to go with it every time. Despite 2 goals early in the second half from Harramiz, we were never in this tie at all and a 7-2 aggregate thrashing was what we took back with us.
So after we were knocked out of both top European competitions this month, we at least had the pleasure of dropping into the UEFA Conference League group stages. Not only would this give us a chance to redeem ourselves on a continental level, it also brought us a much needed financial boost and our balance was now sat at a healthy £3 million pounds which should go a long way for us.
August's Topaz Premyer Liqasi Results:
We kicked off the defence of our League Title with a tough game against Qabala. Things were not helped with the dismissal of fill in full back Mamadou Mbodj within the first half hour. We huffed and puffed after being reduced to 10 men but unfortunately couldn't get the breakthrough and shared the spoils.
The final game of the month saw us take on Zira at the Zira Qasaba Stadionu, our fans packed out nearly the entier stadium which made it feel like a home game, and we took the 3 points thanks to our Portuguese CB Hugo Basto, and a penalty from Jorge Correa.
Looking back at the month in general, it was a very tough one with games against some very good sides. Hopefully the lads we have with us have learnt a thing or 2 from the close encounter with Rangers and the hammering by Sturm Graz. 2 games into the domestic season and we are defending well with 2 clean sheets and 4 points from 6, but there is still plenty of work to do to get to where we want to be, and with the transfer window now open we look forward to hopefully bringing in some new recruits and find out who we have in the Conference League Group Stage for September.
@Tango - Thanks mate, was horrified to see them as our opponents so early, but in shock that we snuck past them. Rangers just had that little bit too much class but hopefully we can make amends in the Conference League.
Season 1 - Update 4 - September Update - Transfers & Europa Conference League Draw.
With the transfer window now open in Azerbaijan, it was absolutely vital that we addressed our issues as soon as possible. The first priority was bringing in a natural left back, and I felt we also needed cover at right back, as well as an extra covering central midfielder. But to do any of this, we first needed to send some players out.
We only had the 2 outgoings from the club, as there was both a mixture of clubs seemingly not willing to spend money this summer, and just a general lack of interest in the players that we were trying to move on. However, we got a nice chunk of change for Fahmin and he got a move to the Russian 2nd Division, and Tiago wanted a move from the day I arrived at the club, it was nice to see the back of him as he was taking up a fair wage at the club, he was into his mid 30's and he wasn't going to get any game time.
In terms of incomings, we got exactly what we were looking for. Nikolay Poyarkov came in on loan from Rostov in the Russian Premier League to fill in the left back position and looks one of the best players at the club, we were delighted to obtain his services. Goran Loncar was the next through the door from FK Kolubara in Serbia, he is going to rival for the right back position, standing in at 6 foot 5 he is going to dwarf his national counterpart at the back. Finally we brought in Kyrylo Dryshlyuk from FK Oleksandriya in Ukraine, this one took a while to get over the line because we kept misspelling his name on the contract. He will provide cover in the midfield where is capable of sitting in all 3 roles comfortably whenever needed, and we are delighted to have them at the club. All 3 have signed loan deals until the end of the season with no obligation to buy.
Europa Conference League Group Stage Draw
I am not going to lie, I was shocked at how difficult this draw is compared to the others in the competition, I would have fancied our chances of progressing in the majority of the other groups after the draw, but again I cannot help but feel hard done by here and it is going to take a huge effort to get some points on the board, never mind qualify.
August's Topaz Premyer Liqasi Results:
Kesla FK (A)
Our first league game of September saw us travel to Kesla. A quiet half first was followed with goals by Correa & Basto in the second half to bring us the 3 points home.
Qarabag FK (H)
These 4 games against Qarabag will be the biggest by far domestically, and we were on top form here. Stankovic grabbed 2 goals from CB and then Mahmudov sealed the win late on.
Harramiz grabbed his first goal of the season to get us off to a flyer, before Stankovic grabbed another goal from CB. Mbodj got his customary straight red card in this game also for his 2nd of the season already.
We finished the month domestically with a thumping win at Sumqayit. They are already rooted to the bottom so it was nice for us to pick up some confidence here. CB and captain Stankovic grabbing himself 4 goals, to break all kinds of records!
September's Europa Conference League Results
A tough night in Turkey here. We gave it our all, we had a few chances but ultimately again Trabzonspor had that bit more class on the night as we leave empty handed.
AEK Athens (H)
We didn't get the result we deserved here. We dominated Athens but just couldn't take our chances and it's disappointing we needed a late Harramiz equaliser to take a point in which we should have taken all 3.
So after a busy month, we got the players that I feel we needed to go into the season with which I am very pleased about. Domestically things are going great for us, we are scoring plenty of goals and brushing aside teams at the moment as the lads finally seem to getting the hang of our tactics. On the European front however, I feel very downbeat with the tough draws we have been getting, but we are determined to fight for every point we can and enjoy the ride!
Season 1 - Update 5 - October Update - Getting Into The Groove
With the transfer window now closed, we now know what we are dealing with in terms of our squad, and for the time being I feel as though we are in a good place. We filled the gaps that were needed and added a little bit of depth and October was another busy month on the pitch where we had a real chance to stamp our authority domestically.
October's Topaz Premyer Liqasi Results:
Our first league game of October saw us travel to Sabail. A very early goal from the home side put us behind, but an equaliser from Dryshlyuk and then 5 goals from Harramiz who has since moved into the number 9 role from the wing saw us to a thumping victory.
First half goals from Harramiz and Stankovic saw us through in what was a relatively poor performance at home to Kesla.
The first defeat of the season domestically came at home to Qabala and rightly so. We were poor from start to finish and they thoroughly deserved the win. Wake up call for the lads.
A good response to the horrendous showing last time out as we hammered Zira with 4 different players on the scoresheet. Just what the doctor ordered.
We rounded off the month away at Sabah, goals from Kané and Nacafov in the first half gave us all the 3 points here.
October's Europa Conference League Results
The biggest team we have faced yet came to Baku in our sole European match of the month, we put a good fight but unfortunately Tottenham had too much for us. A Heung Min Son goal was enough to see us off and all but end any hopes of qualification.
October was a solid month in general for us all things considered. On the pitch domestically we suffered our first defeat which was a shame but the way we bounced back was very pleasing and we are way out in front at the top of the league as things stand. On a European front, again it was just a little bit of quality that we lacked against a very good side on paper but definitely positives to take there. Off the pitch we have some great news, as with the money we received from the Conference League qualification, our board are more than happy to reinvest this into improving both our training and youth facilities and they should be complete early next year.
@Tango - Couldn't agree more! Fingers crossed we can scrape some results somewhere as every bit of funds helps us massively right now
Domestically: you're dominant. Which is what you want really, as your first few forays into Europe will be just about trying to get as much money as you can, so you can spend a bit more to get the players you might need to actually "go for it" so to speak. Hopefully you can pick up a few results along the way, as that'll boost confidence within the squad, your staff, and of course: yourself! But, obviously, you need your domestic form to be good, so that you continue to qualify for those adventures. I can't see you having that issue, as the only team that appears to be able to challenge you is Qabala. How many teams from Kazakhstan qualify for Europe?
Season 1 - Update 6 - November/December/January Update - Europe, it's been a pleasure!
With the Azeri league becoming very quiet over the winter months, there was only a handful of competitive games to be played over this period, however they were still very important to what we wanted to achieve and it was important that we didn't let our European run distract us from our domestic duties.
November & December's Topaz Premyer Liqasi Results:
Another hammering for Sumqayit here, and again 4 different scorers. Although after this game they sacked there manager and poached our reserve team manager who has strong ties to the club in an attempt to survive the drop.
Another tough game here against the league favourites pre season, we got off to a great start, however an equaliser and then another sending off meant we were happy to leave with a point.
Whenever we drop points, we always seem to bounce back straight away which says a lot about the lads mindsets. Our South American duo were on top form here and shared the goals between themselves
November & December's Europa Conference League Results
We knew before we set off to London that no one was expecting anything from us here. I told the lads to just enjoy every minute of it and they did exactly that. We started the game perfectly with such an early goal, and then defended with our lives for 87 minutes. Tired minds and legs got a hold of us though and Harry Winks scored a last minute equaliser. Couldn't have been more proud of the team here.
AEK Athens (A)
At this point qualification was impossible, so we could just relax and play our natural game. It was a joy to watch us in Athens on this occasion as we just had too much for AEK. A 6 minute hat trick from Colli in his finest night in a Neftçi shirt.
Amazing what you can do with no pressure right? Back to back wins came in our final group game against Trabzonspor, this was another tough one though and it took a late winner from Harramiz to finally get one over on them.
So our first European run ended after 3 fantastic results. So proud of the team as we were never heavily beaten in any match, only 2 defeats, and actually finished the group as the top scorers, albeit joint with Trabzonspor. Our front 3 are proving a real threat for any side which is brilliant to see. A lot of lessons learnt, and it's important now that we carry on this form into the second half of the domestic season.
January's Milli Futbol Kuboku Results (1st Round):
A routine win in the domestic Cup here against lower league opposition in Zaqatala. Lawal & Ramon with the goals to book our place in the Quarter Final where we will play Premier Division side Zira.
November, December & January Overview
So we went unbeaten over this period which is fantastic and a real credit to the team and staff. We played a couple of friendlies against local lower division sides also just to keep the players ticking over and to help them out financially. Now the European run is over it is only 1 game a week from here on out so we can really focus on a big push from February where we start with our cup quarter final at Zira.
In terms of the January transfer window, I didn't have any specific plans before hand. However FC Ufa came in with a bid of £150k for our central midfielder Romain Basque, he wasn't a regular starter for me due to playing my Azeri CM there for league rule purposes, however I wasn't prepared to let him leave that cheap. They came back with a couple more improved offers and he left for Russia for £250k. Because of this I just needed to find some cover and that is where we found Maksym Kazakov. He wasn't being used in Ukraine, so we are bringing him in on a loan until the end of the season where we have an option to buy at any point for only £2.5k which I feel is an absolute steal. The other 2 outgoings were not in my first team plans, I try to sell all my dead wood within Azerbaijan to help the other teams out, however Haciyev decided to try out Latvia so he went to RFS, and Asgarov stayed domestically to play for Qabala, albeit the reserves for now.
Unfortunately however we did have some bad news in this window. Our star man Jorge Correa's contract is expiring in the summer and he has no intention of renewing. San Lorenzo offered him a contract to return back to his homeland, I tried to offer him out to clubs to try and get some funds in for him but he had his mind set on playing back home. I cannot argue with that, so he stays for now but will be leaving us at the end of the season.
The same goes for our Brazilian striker/winger Ramon. He is in the same situation and decided he wants to return back to Brazil. Goias offered him a contract which he accepted, so he will also be leaving this summer. An early switch with positions meant Harramiz has been taking up the ST position, however Ramon was very useful to bring off the bench with his versatility and it is sad to see these guys leaving us. Lets hope we can give them a good send off by wrapping up the League title.
@J_ames - Totally agree mate. The squad I inherited is severely underrated it seems as they have Qarabag heavy favourites before a ball was kicked but on paper the squads are pretty even. They have more financial muscle obviously but these players are more than capable of winning trophies domestically. The league is ranked relatively high at 26th in the coefficient at the start of the game just behind Romania, that opens up 3 European Spots (1st = 1st Round UCL Qualifying & the rest go into the 2nd Qualifying round of the Conference League) however 4th place is also a Conference League place depending on the winner of the domestic cup but because ourselves and Qarabag are so dominant it pretty much always will be, and with only 8 teams in the league it seems as though those teams could be fighting relegation 1 week and within a couple of good results fighting for Europe lol. Thanks for reading and the comment mate!
2022-01-09 16:35#286555Tango :
Way better! Is it possible to post a print screen with the current standings?
Unfortunately not for the first season mate. I was already finishing up the season when I decided to commit to making a story on it. Sorry! Next update will more than likely wrap up the season, and then from there on out il be able to provide monthly league table updates.
There were some great [but surprising!] results for you in the Europa Conference, and that should help the Kazakhstan coefficient a little I'd imagine. Retaining players in 'lesser' nations is always a tough thing to do, so all you can do is allow them to leave [and hope for a fee] and then go back to the same nation to bring a new lad in for a few years!
Here's hoping for a strong finish to the season, so that you can try to go further next season