Alan Kasaev’s early goal proved enough for Rubin Kazan as the Russian team scraped a 1-0 home win over Azerbaijani champions Neftci Baku despite dominating the game.
The win puts Rubin top of Europa League Group H ahead of the result of Inter Milan’s home game against Partizan Belgrade, while minnows Neftci stay third on goal difference with one point from their goalless draw with Partizan last month.
Rubin controlled large parts of the match as Neftci kept men behind the ball, with a clear gulf in class between the Russian team, who have beaten Barcelona, and the Azerbaijani visitors taking part in their first European group stage campaign.
For Neftci defender Mahir Shukurov, the tactics were a repeat of the performance from the Azerbaijan side he captained to a 1-0 defeat in Moscow last week.
Rubin coach Kurban Berdyev said his team were frightened of conceding on the counter against Neftci, their former rivals in the Soviet league.
"Neftci can defend and counterattack well. Today there was the fear that one of their attacks would end in a goal, so there was real tension," he said.
Kasaev scored on 16 minutes when the winger picked up Gokdeniz Karadeniz’s well-weighted through ball on the right flank and dribbled into the box, holding off defender Igor Mitreski before slotting the ball under the goalkeeper.
Rubin could have easily scored more in the first half, but promising passing moves were repeatedly let down by poor finishing.
Jose Salomon Rondon shimmied past Shukurov on 22 minutes but fired a powerful effort high and wide, before defender Cristian Ansaldi sent his effort at the goalkeeper ten minutes later.
Soon afterwards, Karadeniz ended an intricate passing combination with a wayward shot from space on the edge of the box.
Neftci finally registered a shot on target in the first minute of the second half, but Chilean forward Nicolas Canales sent a cushioned looping header into the arms of Rubin’s Sergei Ryzhikov, who battled injury to start the game.
Kasaev almost grabbed a second with an audacious diving header, but failed to connect with Karadeniz’s cross and ended up requiring treatment after colliding head-first with goalkeeper Sasa Stamenkovic.
Neftci upped the pressure late on, but proved unable to unpick Rubin’s well drilled defense and create clear cut chances.
Rubin had chances to grab a second on the break, especially when Rondon saw a shot blocked and Karadeniz fired over on 85 minutes, and Rondon then contrived to miss a well-weighted low cross from Oleg Kuzmin.