Hailing from a hotbed of ice hockey, 18-year-old Sergey Khizhnichenko is emerging as Kazakhstan's great footballing prospect after two goals in his second international appearance earlier this month, drawing comparisons with Liverpool FC's Fernando Torres.
Room to grow
Khizhnichenko has enjoyed a speedy rise. An Under-19 regular this time last year, he was given an unexpected chance with the seniors in June due to an injury to FK Aktobe striker Sergey Ostapenko. Kazakhstan pushed Ukraine hard in their FIFA World Cup qualifier, eventually losing 2-1 in Kiev, and the youngster impressed. He was recalled for the fixture away to Andorra on 9 September and repaid the faith with two first-half goals in a 3-1 win. The next day the nation's newspapers were awash with praise, although his coach at FC Vostok, Oirat Saiduov, is eager to play down the euphoria. "He is very talented but not there yet," he told uefa.com. "He has speed and a great desire but he has a lot to do if he wants to be a good player. I hope he will continue to grow."
Saiduov's caution is understandable for a player in only his second season of top-flight football, Khizhnichenko scoring five goals in 35 league appearances in a wide role. Yet he has undoubtedly caught the eye. "He was promoted from the second team at the beginning of last year," said goalkeeper Ivan Sivozhelezov, a former team-mate. "We quickly saw that he is a gifted guy. Fast, with a good strike and a killer instinct. He also has good technique so even the best Kazakh clubs have problems in defence when they come up against him. He reminds me of Fernando Torres and can go a long way."
It could all have been different had Khizhnichenko been brought up elsewhere in the ice hockey-mad city of Ust-Kamenogorsk, but he says his neighbourhood was a rare haven for football. He added: "I've only used my skates twice so I've never had to choose a sport." If it came to choosing a club, meanwhile, there is only one choice for Khizhnichenko: Manchester United FC. "I'm ready to do it free of charge," he joked. "I just need a chance. I understand it is difficult to do from Kazakhstan, so I would need to move to Russia. But for now all my thoughts are with Vostok as we are fighting to stay in the Premier League. After that has been achieved I will dream about United."
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