Saturday, August 8, 2009

Qualifier preview: Germany at Azerbaijan

Eight World Cup qualifying matches are scheduled for Aug. 12 -- next Wednesday, that is -- and we are going to take a closer look at four of those matches in our next four entries on this site.

Normally, Germany and Azerbaijan wouldn't be the sort of match that could aspire to have the word "crucial" associated with it. The Germans are 5-0-1 so far in Europe's Group 4, good for 16 points and the group lead. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan is 0-4-1, good for 1 point, and is completely out of contention.

But, but ... this is the sort of "trap" game that could cost Germany a precious point -- or three -- as it attempts to outpace Russia atop Group 4 -- and Russia is only one point back, with a 5-1-0 mark, the one defeat coming against Germany, 2-1, at Dortmund last October. Russia gets a return match this October, and the Germans don't want Russia to be able to take the group lead with a home victory.

Remember ...

... only the winners of Europe's nine groups clinch berths in South Africa 2010. The eight best second-place finishers are chucked into a home-and-home pair of matches against another second-place team, and only four will survive that roulette spin to go to the World Cup final.

Thus, the difference between finishing first and finishing second in European qualifying is enormous, and every point is crucial. Especially points accrued in away games -- and this is Germany's last on the road, aside from the trip to Russia.

Why shouldn't Azerbaijan be easy pickings? The Azeris haven't managed so much as a goal in five matches, including a scoreless draw against little Liechtenstein.

But consider:

--The Azeris have conceded a mere five goals in their five matches, and never more than one -- aside from a 2-0 defeat vs. Russia at Moscow, back in March.

--Azerbaijan, which lies on the west coast of the Caspian Sea, is the most distant country in UEFA, aside from neighboring Kazakhstan. It is more than 2,000 air miles from Frankfurt to Baku, and that is a long trip, indeed, for Western European players, and into an environment that is far more like the Middle East or Asia than the tidy and well-ordered Europe that Germany's players know.

--The Azeris are coached by German native Berti Vogts, who led Germany to the 1996 Euro Cup championship in England (and later coached Scotland, Kuwait, Nigeria with less success). Vogts certainly understands German football and German players, and that could make for a tougher time, when the Germans are far from home.

Germany will count on its strike force of Michael Ballack, who is recovering from a toe fracture suffered during Chelsea's preseason tour of the United States; Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski to come up with that one goal that could keep the Germans a step ahead of the Russians.

The Azeris are not well known in the West. Rashad Sadigov, who last season played for an also-ran in Turkey's top league, is perhaps their most dangerous attacking player. Farhad Valiyev was in goal for Azerbaijan in its most recent qualifier, a 1-0 home loss to Wales in June. In that Wales game, commentators noted that the match was very rough. The Germans are no shrinking violets, but if a game gets dirty, odd things are even more likely to happen.

This has the feel of a 1-0 score to it, and the Germans will be looking for that one goal early to try to dampen the enthusiasm of the home crowd. If the game is 0-0 for any length of time, well, the atmosphere could become electric and the Azeris could come to believe they are one lucky strike away from making history by upsetting one of the globe's elite sides and, perhaps, turning the course of qualifying in Group 4.

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