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Kazakh champions FC Zhenis Astana will make history tonight when they become the first club from the new UEFA member association to play in a European club competition.
Zhenis take on FC Sheriff Tiraspol in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League first qualifying round tie and Sheriff themselves have reason to mark the occasion as they will open a new sports complex comprising two stadiums and five pitches. Although the complex is still to be finished, the 15,000-capacity Sheriff arena is ready to host its first match tomorrow.
"With a stadium like this you hope they'll produce performances to match it," said Romanian legend Gheorghe Hagi, who visited Tiraspol earlier this year. However, the ambitious Moldovan champions fully expect to fulfil this potential. "We will play in the [UEFA] Champions League", club chairman Victor Gushan.
Sheriff finished last season by winning the double under Romanian coach Mihai Stoichita, who subsequently departed to take over Turkish 1.Lig side MKE Ankaragücü. However, another Romanian, Gabi Balint, is now at helm at Tiraspol. He will be relying on new arrivals from Panama to strengthen the squad in Europe - Ubaldo Guardio and Alberto Blanco, as well as Nigerian player Ibrahim Odoko have recenly joined the team.
Balint was less bullish than his chairman about Sheriff's European prospects. "I have many complaints about players," he said. "There is not much time to change things, but we definitely need better players to do better in Europe."
The Astana side, meanwhile, will be trying to catch their breath after an exhausting league encounter with domestic arch-rivals FC Kairat Almaty, which Zhenis won 1-0. Despite having limited time to recover, the Kazakhs consider the upcoming match a moment to savour - and it will be the first international club competition match to be televised live on Kazakh television. Kazakhstan became UEFA's 52nd member association in April.
'No weak clubs'
"We can`t wait for the game to start. We understand that there are no weak clubs in the Champions League, and there is a battle awaiting us", goalkeeper David Loriya said. Prolific Brazilian striker Nilton Mendez said he is only thinking of one outcome for Zhenis: "I am going to Tiraspol for victory. The game will be played in hot temperatures and what else do you need being a Brazilian!".
Winger Samat Smakov, who has a broken leg, is the only injury absentee for Zhenis. Their coach, Vladimir Fomichev, who took over the side only this month, was cautious ahead of the game: "My team is well-organized and disciplined, but we have one flaw - our thinking on the pitch is not quick enough. This might be an advantage for the fast Moldovans."
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