Dundalk are in Azerbaijan for the second leg of their second round Champions League qualifier with Qarabag, a side that has gone from losing their home to war, to becoming regulars in the group stages of European soccer.

The Lilywhites' opponents are now the dominant force in the Azerbaijani Premier League, having won six successive league titles. It's been a swift rise for a team who were forced out of their home in 1993 and have never returned.

Originally from the border town of Agdam, which was abandoned in the wake of the Armenia-Azerbaijan war and remains a ghost town to this day, the club went close to going out of existence during their exile.

Situated in the heart of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, Agdam was heavily shelled during the conflict with Qarabag’s Imarat Stadium and their training ground both hit by missiles.

As the conflict escalated in the early 90s and Agdam fell under Armenian control, Qarabag were forced to move 150 miles away from their home to Baku, where they have remained.

Plagued by financial and governance issues in the years following their enforced move, Qarabag found stability in 2001 when the state-backed Azersun, a company that controls much of Azerbaijan’s food production, took charge of the foundering club.

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While Azersun’s ownership alleviated their financial problems it wasn’t until 2008 and the arrival of new head coach Gurban Gurbanov that Qarabag began to put into motion decisions that would take them to the group stages of the Champions League.

With new-found financial backing, former Azerbaijan international Gurbanov set about building a team that features the best of Azerbaijan’s international players, along with a sprinkling of foreign talent.

While it has taken time to yield rewards, their domestic dominance over the last six years has given them a real platform to build in Europe.  

Martin Emreli is Qarabag's dangerman

Qarabag have been ever-presents in European competition since 2009, when they progressed to the final play-off round of the Europa League qualifiers. They crashed out three times at that stage before finally making the breakthrough of securing a spot in the group stages in 2014.

Every season since then, they’ve been involved in European group football, most famously qualifying for the money-spinning Champions League group stage in 2017 when they were drawn with Chelsea, Roma and Atletico and took on a central role as their two draws with the Spanish giants proved to be decisive in who qualified for the knock-out phase.

Very much viewing themselves as a club that belongs in the business end of the Champions League now, Qarabag were edged out by BATE Borisov 2-1 on aggregate in last year's play-off round, and had to settle for a place in the Europa League group stage, something which was viewed as a failure within the club and which they’re keen to put right this term.

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In a similar vein there was disappointment within the club over their 1-1 first leg draw in Dundalk last week, particularly after they hit the front after just four minutes.

Dundalk were under the cosh for most of the game but a combination of stout defending and poor finishing from the visitors means that the Lilywhites have everything to play for in the second leg.

Gurbanov expects another backs-to-the-wall display from Dundalk in Baku and believes that it’s up to his side to break them down.

"We have our minds in the game and our opponents are a team that seeks to play the same style of game both home and away," he said. "They are very fast and have some dangerous players in midfield."

The Dalga Arena

Having been in a similar situation in their first round qualifier, where they drew 0-0 with Albanian side FK Partizani before winning 2-0 at home, Gurbanov is confident that his side can progress to face either FK Sutjeska of Montenegro or Cypriot side APOEL Nicosia.

"The draw we had in the first leg of the first round game proved to be a good result for the second leg, but we cannot look past this game," he insisted.  "We know that we will play against a fully motivated team."

Mahir Emreli again looks to be the player most likely to cause problems for the Dundalk defence. Emreli was the man who scored Qarabag’s goal last week and their top goalscorer last season, even if the rustiness of pre-season was still apparent in some of his finishing.

Gurbanov will be hoping to welcome back some two of his more creative players in the shape of Croatian midfielder Filip Ozobic and Spaniard Michel who were both only deemed to be fit enough for a place on the bench in the first leg.

Tricky winger Abdellah Zoubir is likely to keep his place in the starting line-up and will again be looking to apply real pressure down the left-hand side for the hosts.

A big crowd is expected at the Dalga Arena and a vocal local support, who very much view Qarabag as the team of Azerbaijan, will be doing all they can to help their side get over the line against Dundalk.

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Listen to the RTÉ Soccer podcast on Apple PodcastsSoundCloudSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.