Written By: Abidoye Babatunde
Belgium extended their unbeaten run in UEFA European Championship qualifying (ECQ) to four matches by edging Azerbaijan 1-0, thus establishing themselves as strong favourites to qualify for next year’s tournament alongside Austria.
Sitting at opposite ends of Group F, both sides went at each other without restraint in the opening minutes. It was Belgium who first missed by the merest of margins, as Leandro Trossard struck the woodwork after receiving the ball inside the box. Azerbaijan threatened the visitors almost immediately with back-to-back chances, the best of which saw captain Emin Mahmudov’s close-range shot saved by Arthur Theate’s last-ditch challenge.
Despite not suffering a loss in their previous ECQ trips to Baku in 2008 and 2012, their visits had proved far from comfortable, and it looked no different this time around. Having said that, it was no surprise to see Belgian goalkeeper Koen Casteels being called into action midway through the half, as he leaped like a salmon to deny Renat Dadashov’s header. Unfortunately for Gianni De Biasi’s men, Belgium’s grip in midfield meant they eventually conceded via Yannick Carrasco, whose effort was heavily deflected by Johan Bakayoko past an unsuspecting Shahrudin Mahammadaliyev before half time.
Milli komanda upped the ante following the restart, taking the game to the Red Devils in a bid to register a maiden win this qualification campaign. Yet, their efforts fell flat as Domenico Tedesco’s men kept the danger alive on the counter, almost doubling their lead on the hour mark, were it not for Mahammadaliyev’s fantastic save which kept Trossard’s left-footed attempt out. Although Azerbaijan proved stern in both defence and attack, the Dalga Arena ultimately witnessed their beloved outfit succumb to a fourth consecutive winless game in ECQ, out of which three have been defeats.
As one of the two winless teams in Group F alongside Estonia, Milli komanda sit rooted to the bottom of the pile with just one point, as they slip further out of contention to reach their first finals as an independent nation-state. Meanwhile, a third consecutive European Championship appearance is in Belgium’s sights, with one of the two top positions firmly within their grasp.
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