ASTANA – FC Astana and HJK Helsinki produced a thriller previously unseen at the Astana Arena Aug. 5 in a return leg of the UEFA Champions League qualifications’ third round.
Following an incredibly dull goalless draw a week prior in Finland, seven goals were scored in the home team’s 4-3 victory. The incredible drama saw their brave comeback from a two goal deficit and reduction to ten men before conceding a penalty with five minutes left. The Finns looked certain to go through on the away goals rule until a stoppage-time header by Evgeni Postnikov left the visitors stunned.
The atmosphere in the arena was fantastic; nobody expected such an exciting game with a positive result for the local favourites. Gennady Golovkin, currently undefeated as a professional Kazakh boxer and IBO middleweight champion, came to support the players, creating great symbolic encouragement for the footballers and fans.
After the match, the stadium reported it sold 27,937 tickets for the game, the second-highest attendance in the 12-year history of the Kazakh team’s performance in European club competitions. The figure was topped only by the number of fans who two years ago witnessed FC Shakhter Karaganda’s memorable 2-0 triumph over Scottish giants Celtic FC.
The victory means the Kazakh capital will now see its maiden European football autumn as the club has at least secured a place in the group stage of the UEFA Europa League. The team will have six more matches, including three at home, even if they give way to their next opponents in the Champions League playoffs on Aug. 18 and 26. The last European match for FC Astana will take place in mid-December. Naturally, the ambition is to bring the Champions League games to Kazakhstan’s young capital instead, but whether that dream will be fulfilled remains to be seen.
A draw at the UEFA headquarters in Nyon Aug. 7 saw the Astana team tied against Cyprus champions APOEL Nicosia. There are no weak teams left at this stage, a fact confirmed by APOEL’s recent experiences in the Champions League. A few years ago they even reached the quarterfinals, where they gave way to Real Madrid only after beating French champions Lyon. Today, the Cypriot club features a lineup that includes a number of strong Brazilians and Spaniards as well as players from the Cyprus national team.
“I know APOEL mainly because of their usual participation in the group stages, but also because they are a Cypriot team,” said Astana coach Stanimir Stoilov, who previously coached APOEL’s rivals, Anorthosis Famagusta. “They are the favourites to go through, but we will do everything in our power to put on a worthy performance and play well. Football is about who is better on the day and if we can play at a high tempo, then we can be the ones to qualify.”
“We will need to play very well in both games against Astana, but also to improve our performances of late. We need to show we deserve to be in the group stage of the Champions League. I don’t think we should necessarily be happy with the draw because all teams at this stage are difficult,” said APOEL midfielder Nektarios Alexandrou.
The Astana’s heroic deeds of the last fortnight against Maribor and HJK have clearly demonstrated, however, they are now in a mood to continue inspiring fans and upsetting opponents.
The Kazakh football fans’ long-waited joy in the Champions League continued the following evening as FC Kairat Almaty, the country’s last remaining representative in UEFA Europa League, also progressed to the next round. The team secured a 3-2 aggregate victory against Scottish club Aberdeen FC.
Aberdeen was heading home with an away goal after the first leg in Almaty July 30 saw Kairat capture a not-so-comfortable 2-1 lead in the tie. In the return match, the North Scottish side’s faithful fans provided a sea of red in the Pittodrie Stadium stands and offered quite noisy and dedicated support to their players. Not to be outdone, a group of Kairat supporters comprised of both travelling fans and Kazakh compatriots in Scotland were also notable to TV viewers.
Despite Aberdeen playing a brave game and pressuring Kairat’s defences for large portions of the match, the visiting team’s fans celebrated in the end as the game finished 1-1 and a combined victory for the Almaty side.
“The People’s team,” as Kairat is known locally, is now poised to meet arguably its strongest opponent in decades in the face of French giants Girondins de Bordeaux. Founded in 1881, the six-time French champion and runner-up in the 1995-1996 UEFA Cup, Bordeaux was arguably the side most Kairat fans would prefer to avoid in order to maximise the chances of progressing to the Europa League’s group stage.
In a quick comment to sports.kz following the draw, Kairat’s 26-year-old Brazilian defender Bruno Soarez said the team should not fear their famed opponents.
“I am happy how we played in Aberdeen. We controlled the game and secured a good result there. Now we only have a step to take if we want to reach our goal, which is to play in a Europa League group stage. In the playoff, we face a very experienced team but we are ready to take it. We want to overcome Bordeaux and to accomplish our goal,” he said.
“It would be a big moment in our country’s history to have teams get into the group stages of both competitions,”added Kairat Almaty’s head coach Vladimir Weiss.
The Kairat fans online reactions were mixed with some fearful of the mighty opponents, but most others are welcoming a visit from a side in one of Europe’s top five leagues.
“That is why we moved to UEFA after all and that is why we want to progress in the Europa League – to play big teams from big leagues,” read one of the comments.
The first match of the Bordeaux vs. Kairat tie will be played Aug. 20 in France. Seven days later, Almaty will welcome the French at the city’s Central Stadium.