Aberdeen’s Europa Conference League group stage dream is over following a play-off second leg lesson from Qarabag at Pittodrie.
In triumphing 3-1 on the night (4-1 on aggregate), the Azerbaijan side ruthlessly displayed why they are known as the ‘Barcelona of the Caucasus’ with slick passing and movement that left the Reds chasing shadows.
They ripped the Dons apart, particularly in the first half, as the biggest European night at Pittodrie in more than a decade turned into a damp squib.
Clearly the atrocious pitch at their Tofiq Bahramov Republican Stadium in Baku in the first leg cloaked Qarabag’s passing game.
The Pittodrie surface allowed them the canvas to display a passing ethos based on Barca and instilled over the last 13 years by their manager Gurban Gurbanov.
It was a tough shift for the Dons, who came up against a side well schooled in the arts of progressing to the group stages of Europe.
Qarabag were just better on the night and able to open up spaces, drag the Dons across Pittodrie and exploit them.
Aberdeen must learn lessons from this – redemption from defeats comes from lessons learnt.
The challenge is to qualify for Europe this season, and take those lessons into the next campaign.
This is a fledgling team rebuild under Stephen Glass – this will be a developing step for them in what will hopefully be a bid to reach the groups next season.
However, it is now four games without a win for Aberdeen – three of them losses.
Trailing 1-0 from the first leg, the Reds were up against a side that are past masters at qualifying for the group stages of European football under manager Gurbanov.
Qarabag had qualified for group stage action in each of the previous seven seasons – once in the Champions League and six times in the Europa League.
They know how to get the job done in the play-offs. At the same phase, they have knocked out 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).
And now Aberdeen.
Just 20 minutes before kick-off, Aberdeen delivered a major boost with confirmation of the signing of Welsh international attacker Marley Watkins on a two-year deal.
Watkins, 30, was influential during a loan spell at Pittodrie last season from Bristol City before returning to his parent club in November after picking up a serious injury.
During that loan spell Watkins’ pace, movement and link-up play added an extra, potent dimension to the attack which evaporated when he exited Pittodrie.
If he can consistently reproduce that form he will be a vital signing to boost an attack already strengthened with the capture of Christian Ramirez, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas and Austin Samuels.
Sadly, Watkins’ signing was to be the highlight of the night for Aberdeen fans.
There was just one change to the starting XI that drew 1-1 at Hearts on Sunday with left-back Jack MacKenzie coming in for Connor McLennan.
In the build up to the clash, the Dons suffered the hammer-blow of confirmation Andy Considine would be out injured for at least four months.
Considine suffered the injury when his studs became caught up in the terrible pitch in Baku.
The Dons players held up his No.4 shirt as they lined up for the official photograph before kick-off in tribute to their team-mate.
— Aberdeen FC (@AberdeenFC) August 26, 2021
Influential play-maker Ryan Hedges, who netted both goals in the 2-1 defeat of Breidablik in the previous round, was also absent with a hamstring injury.
Manager Stephen Glass went with rising full-backs Calvin Ramsay and Jack MacKenzie, giving them the trust to keep it tight defensively and also push up the flank in attack.
Teenager Ramsay was tasked with keeping the shackles on Ramil Sheydaev with MacKenzie up against winger Jaime Romero, the goal scorer in the first leg.
Spurred on by a vocal Red Army, the Dons began on the front-foot in a high tempo start to the game.
However ,it was the Azerbaijan side that delivered an early hammer blow when taking the lead in the eighth minute to punish slack defending.
Abdellah Zoubir broke inside the left edge of the box before cutting the ball back into the path of Rural BAYRAMOV, who was allowed too much time but unleashed a vicious angled low drive with his left foot from eight yards.
Aberdeen faced a momentous task to realise their group stage dream against a team that were looking experienced European campaigners.
It should have been 2-0 minutes later when Abbas Huseynov hit the right byline and fired a low cross along goal with Kady inches shy of connecting with the goal at his mercy.
In the 16th minute, Aberdeen were awarded a free kick on the left when Jaime Romero fouled Lewis Ferguson.
Left-back MacKenzie flighted a cross deep into the penalty area but keeper Shakhrudin Magomedaliyev punched clear.
Aberdeen went 2-0 behind in the 18th minute when Ross McCrorie gave the ball away when under no pressure. It was a bad mistake that was ruthlessly punished by a slick, quality side.
McCrorie’s slack pass upfield was intercepted by Abdellah Zoubir, who raced into the box. The defence were agonisingly slow to react allowing him to slide a pass to the unmarked KADY, who slotted home from 10 yards.
There were calls for offside, but the assistant referee was directly in line with Kady.
Aberdeen were being ruthlessly ripped apart and schooled in European football.
Moments later Romero fired in a 25-yard shot that Lewis did well to collect.
It was looking like damage limitation now – not group stage aspirations.
Qarabag were showing why they are known as the Barcelona of the Caucasus with slick passing and mesmerising movement. Not only was their play impressive they also worked tirelessly and were all over the pitch closing down balls, firing into 50-50s.
Qarabag were everywhere and did not give Aberdeen a second’s respite.
In the 37th minute, Jonny Hayes weaved his way into the box to unleash a shot, but keeper Magomedaliyev produced a solid save.
Then in the 43rd minute Ramil Sheydaev outmuscled Declan Gallagher when racing for a 50-50 ball near the edge of the box and lifted a shot.
It was straight at Lewis, who easily collected.
Ripped wide open and continually exposed, the Dons were fortunate to only be two goals down at half-time.
Half-time: Aberdeen 0 Qarabag 2
(Aberdeen 0 Qarabag 3 on aggregate)
Early in the second half, Gallagher gave away possession and Zoubir capitalised but his shot flew over the bar.
In the 52nd minute, Calvin Ramsay slid a low pass down the flank to the onrushing Lewis Ferguson, who fired in a low shot, but the keeper did well to collect the 15-yard effort to snuff out the effort.
The Dons were more dangerous in the second half and in the 63rd minute Hayes fired in a curling effort from the edge of the box that the keeper dived to push out.
His parried effort flashed in front of Christian Ramirez at the back post, who was agonisingly close to connecting.
Moments later Ramirez threatened when forcing his way in on goal, but the United States international’s effort flew wide.
It was 3-0 in the 72nd minute when the superb Abdella ZOUBIR ran at pace from deep in midfield and stepped past Ramsay and Gallagher before cutting inside and firing an unstoppable left-foot drive beyond Lewis into the bottom corner.
It was a vicious counter attack.
It sparked the exit of some fans who had seen enough.
They missed an injury time penalty for the Dons following a foul by Richard Almeida on Ramsay.
Unfortunately an Aberdeen ‘supporter’ ran on to the pitch before the spot kick.
Lewis FERGUSON swept in the penalty to make it 3-1.
It was like sticking a plaster on a gaping wound.
Full-time: Aberdeen 1 Qarabag 3
(Aberdeen 1 Qarabag 4 on aggregate)
ABERDEEN (4-3-3): Lewis 6, Ramsay 6, Gallagher 5, McCrorie 5, MacKenzie 6, Jenks 5 (Emmanuel-Thomas 46), Brown 6, Ferguson 6, Ojo 6, Ramirez 5 (Campbell 82) Hayes 6 (McGinn 75)
Subs not used: Woods, Ritchie, McGeouch, Gurr, Ngwenya, Hancock.
QARABAG FK (4-2-3-1): Magoomedaliyev 6, Huseynov 6, Medina 7, Medvedev 7, Bayramov 7, Ibrahimili 7, Garayev 7, Kady 7, Zoubir 8, Sheydaev 7, Romero 7.
Subs not used: Balayev, Arazli, Almeida, Mustafazade, Pandero Zamora, Ozobic, Gurbanli, Vesovic.
REFEREE: Harald Lechner (Austria)
MAN OF THE MATCH: Abdellah Zoubir (Qarabag)