Josh Mart previews St Etienne’s final Europa League match of the group stages against Azeri side Qarabag. ASSE finally broke their goalscoring drought in the Europa League last time out by drawing with Inter Milan 1-1 at the Stade Geoffroy Guichard. Group F is still very open, with no team guaranteed of their position, although Inter are in pole position to qualify. Dnipro, St Etienne and Thursday’s opponents Qarabag are all tied on 4 points with two to play… watch this space.
ASSE are on a run of draws at the moment, where Sunday’s poor 0-0 draw at Nantes could only add to this. Despite this not being ideal for Galtier’s men, they haven’t lost a game since early October, so that points to a solid core and good character. Only managing a draw saw Les Verts slip to 6th in the table, and crucially outside of the European places. With a limited squad in terms of depth, and in some areas quality, balancing the Europa League as well as domestic competitions is proving difficult.
Qarabag still sit pretty on top of the Azerbaijan Premier League, 3 points clear of nearest rivals Neftci Baku. Sunday’s 2-1 success over AZAL was the Horsemen’s 5th win in 6 in the league and they will be hoping to win the league for 2 years in a row. The fact that they could qualify to the knockout rounds of this competition is a small miracle in itself, as teams from this part of Europe seldom manage to bridge the gap between themselves and teams for Europe’s top divisions such as Inter and ASSE. Qarabag will be desperate to get through and hope to draw one of the teams that drop out of the Champions League, as these opportunities don’t come around too often.
Team News and Tactics
Galtier will once again have injuries to contend with, as Erdinc is out with a hamstring problem whilst Saint-Maximin is side-lined with a back problem.
With this in mind I expect Les Verts to go with their typical narrow 4-2-3-1 formation with Ruffier ever present between the posts. Sall and Perrin will be back together at heart of the defence with Theophile-Catherine at full back. Tabanou and Brison will fight it out for the left back berth as they have all season. Central midfield is where Galtier has the most choice and could opt for several different combinations but I expect him to go with Clement and Lemoine as they have been the preferred choice of late, but Cohade or Diomande could also be in line for a start. Hamouma will start on the right of the offensive midfielders with Corgnet in a more central position. Gradel is expected to be recalled after being rested at the weekend. Ricky van Wolfswinkel will lead the line.
Qarabag have a few injury concerns of their own, with Brazilian trio Chumbinho, Danilo Dias and Reynaldo all doubtful for this encounter.
With this in mind I expect Qarabag to lineup in a 4-5-1 formation with Medvedev, Sadiqov, Huseynov and Agolli to make up the back four, with Yusifov and Qarayev provided the protection. With the injuries to the Brazilian stars, Qarabag will have to shuffle things around and possibly play Macedonian midfielder Muarem alongside Richard and George in midfield. Unfortnately for Qarabag, Swiss forward Innocent Emeghara isn’t eligible to play in the Europa league, so Nadirov or Alasgarov are expected to lead the attack.
Corgnet (ASSE)- Corgnet provides great balance and creativity to the St Etienne midfield. He has quick feet and is very good at continuing the play. Les Verts attempt to find him as much as they can in key areas as he can unlock defences with his passing and shooting.
George (Qarabag)- George has been a great signing for Qarabag since joining from NEC in 2013. He has a lot of pace and is quick tricky too. He scored almost 1 in 3 for the Azeri club last season so ASSE will be guarded against him come Thursday.
As this is ASSE, expect a tight game decided by the odd goal… if the deadlock is broken at all that is. On a more serious note, Galtier will sense a real opportunity to qualify after getting through the tricky double header with Inter unbeaten. If Les Verts beat Qarabag here, they will be in a great position when they travel to Ukraine in the final match of the group phase. Qarabag will equally be quietly optimistic about their chances of qualifying as they are on the same points as their French counterparts. It promises to be a crucial game in the Rhone-Alpes region of France.
Prediction: ASSE 1-0 Qarabag