Having established themselves as one of the best teams in Kazakhstan in recent years, FK Aktobe are hoping to achieve the one thing that has continued to elude them − qualification for the group stage of a UEFA competition.
Since winning their maiden league title in 2005, Aktobe have flourished, lifting the championship on three further occasions and finishing runners-up twice. Add to the mix a Kazakh Cup success in 2008 and it is clear that progress on the European stage is all that is missing for the north-western club.
To keep their dream alive, Vladimir Mukhanov's side must complete the job against FC Alania Vladikavkaz when the Russian outfit visit the Central Stadium for the second leg of their UEFA Europa League third qualifying round tie on Thursday. A clean sheet would ensure their progress following last week's 1-1 draw, but having experienced play-off agony in each of the last two seasons, Aktobe have found the final step the hardest to take.
They will need no reminding of events in August 2009. Following a goalless first leg at home, Aktobe surrendered a 3-0 lead in losing 4-3 to Maccabi Haifa FC and with it a berth in the UEFA Champions League play-offs, thereby missing out on a guaranteed UEFA Europa League group stage place at the very least. SV Werder Bremen subsequently ended their hopes of reaching that competition, while 12 months ago AZ Alkmaar did the same despite Aktobe recording a 2-1 victory in the play-off second leg.
Aktobe's first European tie of the season resulted in an away-goals triumph over Hungary's Kecskeméti TE, whose coach, Tomislav Sivić, said afterwards: "Before the match I called my friend, Slobodan Krčmarević, who is the coach of Kazakhstan's Under-21 side. He called Aktobe 'the Kazakh Barcelona' because they can control the ball and like to attack − and that's what happened."
The first leg against Alania reinforced Krćmarević's assessment even if Atsamaz Burayev's 60th-minute equaliser for the Russian side has left things finely poised going into the return. "There are 90 minutes still to be played and we don't need to hurry," said Mukhanov. "Competing on the European stage is totally different; don't forget that we're fighting in three competitions."
To maximise his team's chances, Mukhanov made a plethora of changes for Sunday's 1-1 league draw with FC Atyrau, a decision which won the approval of Aktobe captain Samat Smakov. "It's the team's dream to reach the group stage," said the 32-year-old, who was one of those rested.
"Our fans are dreaming the same and we sacrificed the league because of that.
On Tuesday I found out that all the tickets have been sold. The stadium will be full on Thursday so we can go one step closer to realising our dream."
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