FC Zhenis Astana 3-2 FC Sheriff Tiraspol (4-4 on aggregate, Sheriff win on away goals)
FC Zhenis Astana may have fallen at the first hurdle in the UEFA Champions League today but the champions of Kazakhstan can hold their heads high after a spirited two-legged display against their Moldovan opponents.
New UEFA member
Zhenis, Kazakhstan's maiden European representatives after the former Soviet republic became UEFA's newest member association in April, proved during last week's 2-1 first-leg defeat in Tiraspol that Sheriff were not going to play this tie on their own terms.
In front of nearly 12,000 fans in Astana central stadium, Zhenis dominated the early proceedings with Sheriff's defence struggling to cope. Sebastian Hutan, the Moldovan champions' Romanian goalkeeper, saved his team more than once but unfortunately suffered an injury with just 14 minutes played and was forced off the field. Substitute keeper Alexandru Chirilov struggled to match Hutan's form and was ultimately beaten three times.
In fact, Zhenis came close to a famous triumph - with a 60-second spell in the second half costing them a place in the second qualifying round. The hosts looked to be sticking to the fairytale script when Arsen Tlekhougov collected Alexey Klishin's precise pass to shoot them ahead after 31 minutes and eradicate Sheriff's first-leg advantage.
All sorts of trouble
By the time Evgueni Lovtchev had doubled their lead with a headed goal eight minutes later, to give Zhenis a 3-2 aggregate lead, the visitors looked in all sorts of trouble. The half-time break offered little respite for Sheriff as the Astana-based side came out for the second half looking to kill off the game, striking a third seven minutes after the restart through Klishin, this time with Lovtchev turning provider.
With thoughts of a second-round trip to Austria to tackle Grazer AK perhaps entering their players' minds, Zhenis capitulated inside a minute to turn the tide back in Sheriff's favour. Vadim Boret capitalised on a mistake by Sergey Kozulin to reduce the arrears in the 58th minute, before substitute Eugen Patula's pass allowed Andriy Nesteruk to score a carbon-copy goal within a minute to silence the home crowd.
The profligacy of Brazilian striker Nilton Mendes, Tlekhugov and Martin Bielik eventually proved the hosts' undoing as Sheriff scraped through on away goals. The victors advance to a two-legged meeting with Grazer, the ties being played on 31 July and 7 August.