ABERDEEN’s bid to reach the group stage of the Europa Conference League crumbled against Azerbaijan’s Qarabag who produced an outstanding performance to fillet the Dons with two early first-half strikes and a third twenty minutes from the end.
Reds manager Stephen Glass did not look for excuses at the end of ninety minutes he found difficult to endure. There were none. They simply met a much better, classier outfit unperturbed by going into the second leg of this play-off tie just one goal in front.
The absence of centre-back Andy Considine and playmaker Ryan Hedges may have sent a signal to their opponents that the Dons were under-strength, and though it didn’t look that way when Glass announced his line-up, the reality was that the hosts were second best by a long way.
Considine’s cruciate ligament disaster in the first leg in Baku will keep him out for around six months, but the pain he’s suffering following midweek surgery would have been exacerbated as he watched on the club’s TV channel how his team-mates disintegrated after Qarabag’s opener.
It was an early set-back they didn’t reckon for and the initial excitement from a crowd of 15,533 was quickly extinguished with that goal. The visitors impressed with a swift manoeuvre down the left that exposed teenage full-back Calvin Ramsay, the youngster teased and taunted before Abdellah Zoubir collected the ball and played it into the path of Tural Bayramov. His angular strike from the left found its way into the far corner of Joe Lewis’ goal with the goalkeeper wondering: “How did that happen?”
The superior technique of the Baku battlers was clear. They looked considerably more comfortable on the front foot and were quick and decisive with their passing.
It was their movement that led to the roof falling in on the Reds just before 18 minutes of play as once more they ripped open a shaky Aberdeen defence. And again it was Zoubir who was the provider, this time feeding the predatory Kady Borges Malinowski whose strike was low, powerful, full of commitment and too far out of the reach of the Pittodrie goalkeeper.
There was a touch of positivity from the home side as Jonny Hayes raced down the left and crossed for Christian Ramirez. The big striker, however, did not anticipate the speed and agility of the Azerbaijan goalkeeper Shakhrudin Magomedaliyev, quick and brave as he snuffed out the danger.
Qarabag were simply too good for the Dons. They were speedier of thought and han the Scottish side. In their two first-half scorers and in the talismanic Zoubir, they had performers who knew each other’s play and displayed ability to move into spaces, always ready to accept passes.
Jay Emmanuel-Thomas’ second-half introduction for Teddy Jenks, over-run in midfield, showed intent from Aberdeen. His purpose and determination was never going to be good enough against such quality opposition.
Hayes came close to cutting the deficit with a good strike from within the penalty area only to be foiled again the acrobatic Azeri keeper.
But the night was to worsen for the ragged Dons as they chased shadows in their attempt to compete.
With the Pittodrie defence in disarray, the Qarabag playmaker collected Borges Malinowski’s excellent pass in the 72nd minute and with no red shirt in the vicinity, he guided the ball past Lewis from just inside the area to cap a man-of-the-match performance.
Lewis Ferguson’s 92nd minute penalty for the home side after the Austrian referee inexplicably judged that Jack MacKenzie had been fouled in the area by Richard Almeida, was of no consequence.