ASTANA – After a 0-1 away defeat July 15 and an impressive 3-1 victory at Astana Arena a week later despite being a player down for the last half-hour of the tie, FC Astana overcame opposition from Slovenian FC Maribor in its debut round in the UEFA Champions League. Thirteen years ago, another club from the capital city, FC Zhenis, gave way to Moldovan champions Sheriff Tiraspol in the first-ever participation of Kazakh clubs in European football competitions.
Kairat Almaty, another remaining representative of Kazakhstan’s Premier League in Europe, progressed to the third round of the UEFA Europe League following a 4-2 aggregate victory over Armenian FC Alashkert. The playoffs included a confident 3-0 win at home.
FC Astana will now travel to Finland to meet the HJK local club. To date, the Helsinki club is the only representative of its country to play in the UEFA Champions League group stage when it defeated France’s FC Metz 2-1 in the 1998-1999 elimination. The club then played in one group with famous European clubs – beating Benfica Lisbon once, drawing Kaiserslautern twice and losing both matches to PSV Eindhoven. In recent years, HJK has won six national championship titles in a row. Last season, HJK reached the Europa League’s group stage where it placed third in Group B behind Belgium’s Brugge KV and Italy’s FC Torino.
FC Astana faces a serious challenge this week despite Finland’s relatively-weak credentials in European football. Inspired by a triumph over the previous tie’s favourites from Slovenia, however, many local fans predict that the current quality squad featuring both home-grown players and strong contracted foreigners stands a good chance to progress to the Champions League third round. If that is the case, the Astana side led by a popular Bulgarian coach Stanimir Stoilov would at the least repeat Shakhter Karaganda’s success of two years ago and guarantee a spot in the Europa League group stage.
The tie’s first match will be played in Helsinki on July 29, with the return leg scheduled Aug. 6 in Astana Arena.
Kairat FC will in turn serve as host at Almaty’s Central Stadium July 30 to visitors from Scotland, a country with a history of modern football second only to England. They will again face the club that has previously won a European trophy. In 1983, Aberdeen FC won the European Cup Winners’ Cup and the UEFA Supercup. The North Scottish side was coached at the time by Alex Ferguson, who later reached further glory as a manager of Manchester United for almost three decades.
The return leg in Aberdeen’s Pittodrie Stadium is scheduled for Aug. 7.