Aberdeen boss Stephen Glass senses the hunger within his squad to end a 14-year wait to deliver European group stage action.
Glass admits he had been reluctant to talk about ending the club’s Euro group drought dating back to the UEFA Cup in 2007.
Now it is within touching distance – just 180 minutes away with the first leg against Qarabag in Baku, Azerbaijan at 8pm (5pm UK time) today.
And he aims to take a momentous step towards the groups with victory in Azerbaijan.
Aberdeen will face testing conditions in 30 degree plus heat on a poor playing surface against a team that has successfully qualified for European group action in each of the last seven groups.
Despite the challenges, Glass did not make the nine-hour journey to play it safe in the hope of scraping a draw or narrow loss – he wants a win.
He said: “Group stages until Christmas means a lot to the club and the fans.
“The players want to play in those games as well, so there’s a hunger to get to that stage.
“I didn’t want to talk about it before the other games, because we weren’t at this play-off stage. But I think the enormity of the game was there.
“It would mean a hell of a lot to get into the group stages.
“It is difficult and there’s a reason it’s not happened for 14 years or so.
“We’re aware of that, but we do believe we’ve got a group who can do it.
“We need to look after business in Baku to make sure come next Thursday we’ve got an opportunity in Aberdeen to make it a reality.”
In their seven-season winning streak in Euro play-offs, Qarabag are undefeated in the home ties – Glass aims to change that.
During that winning run in the play-offs, they have seen off Legia Warsaw (Poland, 2020), Linfield (Northern Ireland, 2019), Sheriff Tiraspol (Moldova, 2018), Copenhagen (Denmark, 2017), IFK Gothenburg (Sweden, 2016), Young Boys (Switzerland, 2015) and Twente (Holland, 2014).
Glass said: “We’re going to try to win the game.
“Whether that’s late in the game we go and try win it, or go all out early on.
“We’ll get a feel for the players in training and see how tactically we approach it and see how the players are feeling and looking after the travelling as well.
“The number one priority is to make sure the game is still alive when we come back to Aberdeen.
“You don’t know the opponent truly until you start feeling it.
“We think we’ve got a group of players who can win in Baku.
“We also believe we can win both games, but they’ll think the same for sure.”
Glass believes Aberdeen can win in Baku
Qarabag only began their domestic league campaign at the weekend with a 1-1 draw away to Zira.
— Qarabağ FK (@FKQarabagh) August 15, 2021
Last season Qarabag finished runners-up in the Azerbaijan Premier League, but lost leading goal-scorer Mahir Emerili in the summer.
Azerbaijan striker Emerili, who netted 22 goals last season, transferred to Legia Warsaw.
Glass has extensively studied recent games of Qarabag – including their Euro ties.
He said: “It’s difficult to quantify the level they’re playing at, but what I would say is they have a group of players that includes at least ten Azerbaijan internationals
“We’re playing against a group of good experienced players who know how to win games.
“They wouldn’t be in this play-off if they didn’t know how to do that.
“However, we feel it’s a game we can win having watched them.
“I know they’ll feel the same.
“If we control the game and dictate it where we can and still be a threat, I think we’ve got a chance of making progress.”
Late fitness test for Jonny Hayes in Baku
Winger Jonny Hayes was stretchered off in the 2-1 League Cup loss at Raith Rovers on Sunday but recovered enough to make the flight to Azerbaijan.
Hayes will be given a late fitness test today.
Attacker Ryan Hedges did not fly out to Baku as he is still suffering from an injury, also suffered late in the cup loss at Raith.
Hedges is being assessed back in the Granite City and Glass is sweating the outcome.
He said: “The group who didn’t play on Sunday had a training session on Monday, but that didn’t include Jonny.
“He’ll be a late decision, but he is here.
“We left Ryan behind as we didn’t think the flight would help him.
“He is being assessed properly now the swelling has gone down so fingers crossed there is nothing serious going on.”
Searing heat, terrible pitch, jet lag, time difference – but no excuses
Despite the 8pm kick-off tie in Baku, the temperature is still set to be in excess of 30 degrees.
The condition of the playing surface is so bad Qarabag considered approaching UEFA to request a change of venue.
Following the long flight, there is also a three-hour time difference with Aberdeen opting to operate on UK time, rather than Azerbaijan time.
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🏴 ➡️ 🇦🇿 pic.twitter.com/aEIQzTRUBo
— Aberdeen FC (@AberdeenFC) August 17, 2021
Testing conditions, but Glass is not interested in hearing excuses – he wants a win.
He said: “It’s 33 degrees so it’s warm. We landed on Tuesday night at what would be the tail end of the game and it wasn’t too warm.
“It is humid, but once the sun goes down it helps.
“It’s going to be hotter than we’re used to, but they are also playing in the heat so that will dictate the pace of the game at times.
“In terms of the pitch, we trained at kick-off time to get a feel for the pitch and the temperature, so we’ll be as well prepared as we can be.
“It’s the same stadium and pitch from a week ago, so I don’t see there being much difference.
“I don’t know if it is one of those pitches which starts flat then has divots all over the place as you play, but it looks that way.
“But it is the same for both teams. If it is purely physical, we’ll be ready for it and if we can play, we’ll play.
“We have a group capable of mixing it.”