Azerbaijan ready to take on giants

7 May 2017

Azerbaijan will go up against the Islamic world's best footballing nations at the fourth Solidarity Games in Baku, with their first match against Cameroon on Monday.

The rules are the same as the Olympics, with only three players aged over 23 allowed in each squad.

The hosts have never competed in the football competition before and also have the likes of Turkey, Algeria and defending champions Morocco to go up against.

The north Africans edged out hosts Indonesia 2-1 four years ago, to go one better than when they lost 1-0 in the 2005 final to home team Saudi Arabia.

While the first match is between the two previous winners, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, in Group A at the Azal Arena on Monday morning, all eyes will be on the late kick-off as the first home athletes take to the field at the Bayil Arena to face Cameroon.

The world's favourite sport has taken off in Azerbaijan, with club teams and the national side having improved dramatically in recent years.

The senior national team are currently fourth in Group C of European World Cup qualifying, three points off the playoff place, while both Qarabag and Gabala have featured in the Europa League group stages in recent years.

"We are ready to play with Cameroon and looking forward to the start of the match. The team is in good spirits," said head coach Yashar Vahabzade.

"I understand that everyone is very excited about the games, because these games will be held in our country and we want to win.

"The good news is that we don't have any injuries in the team. The training is going smoothly."

The other side of the draw sees Palestine make another appearance at an international tournament, after their surprise qualification for last year's Asian Cup.

With crucial Asian Games qualifiers coming up in the summer, many of the countries in action have sent strong squads as they look to hit form at the right time.

"We have Asian Games qualifiers in August and we want to be ready for those qualifiers," said Palestine team manager Islam Masharqah.

"We have games at home against Jordan, Tajikistan and Oman.

"We have a good feeling about the first match here (against Oman), but after that we have very difficult games against Algeria, they have a good team, and Turkey, they are a strong European team.

"But we will fight against them."

Group B begins to the west of the centre of the capital, when Algeria and Turkey pave the way for the hosts at the Bayil Arena.

Palestine then go head-to-head with Oman at the Azal Arena, situated 40 kilometres outside Baku, in a repeat of a match they won at the 2014 Asian Games, when they reached the knock-out stages for the first time.

It promises to be an enthralling tournament with the final on Sunday, May 21 at the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium, which is named after the famous Azerbaijani linesman who ruled that Geoff Hurst's hat-trick goal for England had crossed the line in the 1966 World Cup final against West Germany at Wembley.

Bahramov is probably still Azerbaijan's most famous name in football, but those in Baku will be hoping that some of the younger generation can make their mark on the pitch over the coming fortnight.

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