UEFA Champions League Valletta 0 Qarabag 1
An early goal was enough for Qarabag to grind out a 1-0 victory over Valletta in the first leg of their Champions League second qualifying round match at the National Stadium.
Qarabag, the 2013/14 Azerbaijan champions, had been regarded as favourites to win after spending millions to assemble their current squad but Valletta fought bravely. They not only managed to limit the damage to one goal but also created some encouraging attacks.
Goalkeeper Nicky Vella looked uneasy in the first half but improved tremendously after the change of ends, also saving a penalty in the final stages after Valletta had been reduced to 10 men following the dismissal of Ryan Camilleri.
Ten minutes from the start of the game had passed when Qarabag fashioned first chance, a low shot by Muarem Muarem which sailed wide.
Four minutes later, Leroy swept past the on-rushing Nicky Vella, the Valletta goalkeeper, but left-back Ian Azzopardi was alert to clear the ball off the line with a sliding tackle.
A sweeping counter-attack from Valletta unnerved Qarabag as Abdelkarim Nafti latched on to a long ball from Ryan Fenech but his cross towards Shaun Bajada was blocked by Ibrahim Sebic, the Qarabag goalkeeper.
It was Qarabag who took the lead on 17 minutes when Cicero Martinaldo Da Silva’s brilliant free-kick had the better of the startled Vella.
Valletta should have made it 1-1 on 27 minutes when Portuguese midfielder Hugo Faria lifted an excellent through-ball to Lateef Elford-Alliyu who turned well but his rising drive from inside the box sailed high.
Close to the half-hour mark, Qarabag went close with another fierce drive from the distance but Ansi Agolli’s screamer cannoned off the crossbar, much to the relief of Vella.
Although Qarabag were the livelier side, Valletta were coping well and pushed forward with menace when they broke on the counter. This was evident when Roderick Briffa surged upfield through the middle but the Malta midfielder’s dipping shot was high.
Valletta raised their game after the change of ends but rarely threatened the Qarabag goalkeeper.
In a rare counter-attack, on 58 minutes, Agolli made good progress on the right and crossed for Reynaldo whose header was blocked by Vella.
The Valletta goalkeeper then produced a fine save to tip Leroy’s close-range volley over the bar after a good cross from Muarem.
The hosts should have done better when, in a prolonged move, Ryan Camilleri’s shot was repelled but the ball rolled to Fenech whose cross-cum-shot fizzed across the face of goal.
With 18 minutes remaining, Agius brought on Raphael Kooh Sohna, Valletta’s latest signing, for Elford-Alliyu.
Qarabag threatened to put the game to the bed when the lively Reynaldo dashed into the box to reach a long pass and held off Camilleri but his low strike was kept out by Vella.
Seven minutes from time, Valletta’s comeback hopes suffered a heavy blow when Camilleri was shown a straight red card for a penalty-box tackle on Leandro, a second-half substitute. The referee’s decision was harsh as Camilleri looked to have made a clean tackle but justice was done as Almeida’s shot was kept out by Vella.
In the dying stages, Vella made another vital stop to deny Reynaldo.
VALLETTA – N. Vella, J. Caruana, S. Bajada (S. Arab), R. Fenech, A. Nafti (I. Zammit), L. Dimech, R. Briffa, I. Azzopardi, L. Elford Alliyu (R. Kooh Sohna), R. Camilleri, H. Faria,
QARABAG – I. Sehic, G. Garayev (N. Yusifov), R. Silva dos Santos, M. Muarem (L. Danilo Dias), I. Gurbanov, R. Almeida de Oliviera, A. Teli, A. Agolli, G. George Leroy Marten (V. Nadirov), B. Guseynov, C. Da Silva Marinaldo.
Date: 15.07.14 Time: 18:30 Venue: National Stadium
Scorers: 17′ Cicedro da Silva Marinaldo (Q)
Yellow Cards: R. Briffa, H. Faria (V)
Red Card: R. Camilleri (V)
Referee: Adrien Jaccottet