Aberdeen’s hopes of qualification for the Europa Conference League group stages remain alive despite a tough night in Azerbaijan.
The Reds suffered a 1-0 loss and also the set back of Scotland international defender Andy Considine being stretchered off injured after just 10 minutes.
In testing conditions the Reds mustered just two shots on target, both late on, but set up a second leg cracker in the return at Pittodrie on Thursday.
Played on a shocking surface in searing heat in excess of 30 degrees this became a war of attrition on a tattie field.
Despite Qarabag’s domination of possession Aberdeen restricted them to just the one goal and kept the bid to secure group stage football for the first time since 2007 alive.
Qarabag were Euro street-wise and made the most of the terrible pitch.
They have g a pedigree of qualifying from play-offs having done it seven years in a row – six times in Europa League and once in Champions League since 2014.
In the return the Dons will have home advantage, with what will surely be an 18,000 sell out at Pittodrie, on a pitch more conducive to their passing game.
Aberdeen jetted out to Azerbaijan with the task to keep the tie alive – and they have.
As expected there were major changes, six in total, to the starting XI that crashed out of the League Cup at Championship Raith Rovers on Sunday.
There had been concerns about the shocking state of the pitch at the Tofiq Bahramov Republican Stadium with Aberdeen chairman Dave Cormack slating UEFA for sanctioning the tie on that playing surface.
The pitch was rutted and uneven before kick-off and only cut up even more as the tie progressed.
Cormack joked the return tie should be played at Inverdee – the surface at Inverdee are like a bowling green compared to the disgraceful surface in Baku.
UEFA took their eye of the ball sanctioning the pitch. It was like a throwback to the seventies playing in ripped up pitches with more mud than grass – not a game with group stage qualification and £2.5m in prize money riding on it.
It took just 10 minutes for the pitch to take a toll when Andy Considine sufffered a concerning injury to his left knee after his foot became stuck in the uneven turf when nudged by Jaime Romero.
Scotland international Considine, the only surviving player from the Dons side that reached the UEFA Cup group stages in 2007, was clearly in distress as he was stretchered off.
Aberdeen now have just one recognised fit centre-back in Declan Gallagher. Although Ross McCrorie appears set to feature at centre-back primarily this season signing a player in that position looks a necessity before the transfer window closes.
Qarabag created the first opportunity in the seventh minute when Toral Bayramov broke forward and shrugged off two challenges before firing a shot off from 20 yards but keeper Joe Lewis did well to block.
Despite the 8pm kick off in Azerbaijan the temperature was 31 degrees and that, combined with the surface, combined for an understandably low tempo opening.
Qarabag went ahead on the half hour mark when ROMERO controlled a cross from left on his chest then stepped wide of substitute Jonny Hayes who was left two against one in the wide area.
Romero stepped to his left to open up space and then fired a low 15 yard drive through Hayes’ legs and into the far corner beyond the diving Lewis.
Qarabag dominated possession and dictated the tempo for the rest of the half. In the rare times the Dons got the ball upfield Ramirez and Emmanuel-Thomas struggled to retain possession to take the pressure off.
It was a frustrating opening 45 minutes for the Dons who failed to muster a single effort, either on or off target, against Qarabag.
There had been no questions asked of the Azerbaijan outfit’s defence. Central midfielders Scott Brown, Lewis Ferguson and Funso Ojo struggled to stamp their authority on the game or get any sustained possession.
Qarabag played to the conditions, particularly the horrible pitch, far better than Aberdeen in that first half which would have been a tough watch for Dons’ fans.
Half-time: Qarbag 1 Aberdeen 0
In the 49th minute Kady broke into the box and hit the byline before firing a dangerous cross along the face of goal but the Reds scrambled clear.
Moments later Aberdeen were awarded a free-kick on the left flank 35 yards out.
However Jack MacKenzie flighted the free-kick deep into the box that was easily collected by the keeper. It was wasteful, particularly in the heat.
In the 61st minute Aberdeen retained possession at the edge of the Qarabag penalty area as they probed an opening but it fizzled out when substitute Connor McLennan whipped in a cross that was too high and easily collected by the keeper.
There was a nervous moment when Ferguson went down following a challenge from Andrade in the 63rd minute which earned a yellow card.
However after treatment to his knee Ferguson was okay to continue.
In the 74th minute Qarabag broke upfield with Kady but his long range effort from 25 yards flew over the bar.
Aberdeen had more intensity in the second half but still lacked that threat in front of goal.
In the 83rd minute a corner whipped in by Calvin Ramsay was cleared as far as Brown but his powerful effort was charged down.
Soon after Aberdeen mustered their first shot on target when Ramirez was played in on goal but he snatched at his effort from 16 yards and the keeper easily saved the low effort.
In injury time Lewis produced a vital block from Vesovic to keep it 1-0.
Six minutes into injury time Ferguson curled a 25 yard free kick wide of the defensive wall but the keeper easily saved in the final kick of the game.
A narrow defeat away from home against a side with a track record of progressing from play-offs to the group stages – it sets it up for a Pittodrie cracker on Thursday.
Full-time: Qarabag 1 Aberdeen 0
ABERDEEN (3-5-2): Lewis 6; McCrorie 6, Gallagher 6, Considine 3 (Hayes 10); Ramsay 6, Brown 6, Ferguson 6, Ojo 5, Mackenzie 6, Emmanuel-Thomas 4 (McLennan 46) , Ramirez 5.
Subs not used: Woods, Ritchie, McGinn, McGeouch, Jenks, Gurr, Campbell, Ngwenya, Hancock
QARABAG: Magomedaliyev 6; Huseynov 6, Medvedev 6, Medina 6, Bayramov 6, Garayev 6 (Ibrahimili 87), Andrade 6, Romero 7 (Vesovic 87), Kady 7(Ozobic 78) Zoubir 6, Sheydaev 6
Subs not used: Balayev, Arazli, Almeida, Mustafazade, Zamora, Gurbanli,
Referee: Rade Obrenovic (Slovenia)
Man of the match: Romero (Qarabag)