The first team from Kazakhstan to appear in the UEFA Champions League were formed by the merger of two clubs 1,200km away and are coached by a former nemesis. Meet FC Astana.
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It may sound strange but the biggest club in the Kazakhstani capital of Astana is the result of a merger between two Almaty-based teams. When FC Alma Ata and FC Megasport united in the winter of 2008–09, not only did they move 1,200km from the previous capital, they also changed their name to Lokomotiv Astana as the country's railway administration became their sponsors.
Their ambitions were big from the start. For their top-flight debut, Lokomotiv brought in former Spartak Moskva and Russia midfielders Andrei Tikhonov and Yegor Titov as well as ex-Dynamo Kyiv striker Maksim Shatskikh. Another former Russian international Sergei Yuran took the reins as coach.
Loko finished second in the league at the first attempt in 2009 yet were ineligible for European competition for licensing reasons. Even so, they won Kazakh Cups in 2010 and 2012, and in between times adopted a fresh identity as FC Astana.
Only in 2013/14 did Astana get to experience the UEFA Europa League, losing heavily in the first qualifying round to Botev Plovdiv. Last season, however, they made it past Pyunik, Hapoel Tel-Aviv and AIK Solna to earn a UEFA Europa League play-off against Villarreal. Better still, they ended the 2014 Kazakh Premier League as champions.
In June 2014, Astana turned to the man who had overseen their 6-0 aggregate humbling in the UEFA Europa League as Botev coach. It was under Stanimir Stoilov that Astana delivered on the European stage by beating Hapoel and AIK before claiming the domestic crown and then progressing to the current UEFA Champions League group stage from the second qualifying round – becoming the competition proper's first Kazakh representative.
"Our coach combines many qualities," Astana goalkeeper Nenad Erić said of the 48-year-old Bulgarian. "He can be a motivator, he is a great tactician, he is a man-manager who speaks to everyone individually. His role in our success cannot be underestimated."
Nemanja Maksimović, Georgi Zhukov and Roger Cañas are the main men in midfield, while Foxi Kéthévoama and Baurzhan Dzholchiyev are responsible for getting the goals. Ghanaian attacker Patrick Twumasi, 21, is another prominent figure yet he will miss four Group C matches through suspension following his dismissal during the third qualifying round second leg versus HJK. Fortunately, there is strength-in-depth.
"I think Zhukov and Twumasi play very important roles," said former Kazakhstan midfielder Ali Aliyev. "Zhukov is a very hardworking player, he stopped APOEL's rapid transition from defence to attack. Twumasi's suspension could be a big problem, however. He is good at creating space, reading the game and very helpful in building attacks."
Stoilov deploys a classic 4-5-1 with Maksimović and Cañas as defensive midfielders while three others support lone striker and captain Tanat Nuserbayev. Left-winger Kéthévoama often moves inside to facilitate the attacking runs of left-back Dmitri Shomko.
Right-winger Dzholchiyev operates very close to Nuserbayev, meaning right-back Branko Ilič is more focused on defensive duties and does not cross the halfway line often. Kéthévoama and Shomko are responsible for set pieces – another effective weapon for Astana – with Maksimović the target for high balls.
Overall, Astana are an attacking side and Stoilov is ready to play a similar way even against Atlético Madrid and Benfica. "We want to play our own brand of football, it is important for the team. We have to make most of our qualities," said Stoilov.
Autumn is not the warmest of seasons in Kazakhstan. Nonetheless, Galatasaray, Atlético and Benfica fans should not be unduly worried as the 30,000-seater Astana Arena boasts a retractable roof which is usually closed during freezing conditions. If sell-outs are rare in domestic football, it is a different story in the UEFA Champions League and tickets for the APOEL home match went quickly.