When Kairat Almaty reached the 2005/06 UEFA Futsal Cup semi-finals, it was considered one of the finest ever performances by a team from Kazakhstan at any level. But this time around they are favourites to reach that stage as they begin Elite round Group C today against Czech hosts FK Era-Pack Chrudim, Slov-Matic Fofo Bratislava and Futsal Topsport Antwerpen.
Kairat, who were pipped in this round by ElPozo Murcia FS a year ago having lost in the last four to MFK Dinamo Moskva 12 months before, have a superb mix of home-grown and Brazilian talent. President Kairat Orazbekov has guided the club since their formation 12 years ago, and sets high standards. "We have a record of reaching the semi-final which is our best achievement so far," he said. "But we also aim to win every time and consider any other result a failure."
In order to move closer to the European crown, Kairat signed Brazilian goalkeeper Marcinho and the versatile Jadder Dantas, the latter joining from Italian champions Luparense Calcio A5. Brazilian coach Alesio said: "We have rich international experience so I do not think we will take a cautious approach in the Czech Republic. I think the teams in our group differ in class. The hosts have a good chance of progress but we are favourites. The others will be waiting for us to make mistakes so we will bank on keeping concentration."
Chrudim won all their Main round games on home territory but have not rested on their laurels, signing Tomáš Sluka on loan from CC LKW Jistebník to take their tally of Czech internationals to seven. Sluka has been released by second division football club SFC Opava for this tournament and next month's UEFA European Futsal Championship and will link up with Czech legends Roman and Michal Mareš, who contributed six Main round goals between them. Coach Ota Stejskal, whose team have only previously met Bratislava, said: "I don't underestimate any opponents, but there are definitely more difficult groups. We lost both friendly games with [Bratislava] and I hope that we will finally win."
Bratislava moved past their opening stage for the first time in three campaigns as they pipped Azerbaijan's Araz Naxçivan in the Main round, recovering from 3-1 down with five minutes to go to win 4-3. Coach Millan Kollár, who also leads the Slovakian national team, said: "Kairat Almaty are favourites for sure with some superb Brazilian players, but we will try to win. Last time we met Chrudim we won 4-2, so we have confidence."
Antwerpen are making their European debut after depriving the previously ever-present Action 21 Charleroi of the Belgian title last season. They topped their Main round group and have made a good start to the domestic season with Karim Bachar and Karim Bali in good form, scoring five goals bertween them in a 7-1 win against the Belgian national team on 3 October. Club secretary Chris Peeters told uefa.com: "Reaching the last 16 is an achievement in itself, and we realise that the competition will get really tough now. Almaty are the favourites. They have a huge Brazilian influence, just like Action 21 Charleroi. We have beaten the latter three times in a row now, so we are also doing reasonably well. But it is going to be tough."
Additional reporting by Ladislav Josef, Rastislav Hribik & Berend Scholten
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