Manchester United kick off their Europa League campaign with a first ever clash against Astana.
Ahead of the Group L opener, PA takes a look at the visitors to Old Trafford on Thursday evening.
A club in a hurry
The first ever meeting between teams from England and Kazakhstan in UEFA competition promises to be an occasion to remember for Astana. Only formed in 2009 following the merger of two clubs, they were known as Lokomotiv Astana for a further two years. They have won five straight Kazakhstan Premier League titles and could well win a sixth thanks to their dominant domestic displays. On the continental stage, the Blue and Yellows became the country’s first team to play in the Champions League group stage in 2015-16, when they finished bottom of a group including Atletico Madrid, Benfica and Galatasaray. But Astana did not disgrace themselves, drawing all three home games as well as their final match in Turkey. They have failed to make it into the Champions League since, having to make do with Europa League football after falling in the qualifiers for four straight years.
Kings of Kazakhstan
Champions of the Kazakhstan Premier League each year since 2014, Astana currently find themselves in the unusual position of third behind Tobol and Kairat. The Blue and Yellows are five points off the top but do have two games in hand on their rivals. In Europe, they were knocked out of this year’s Champions League in the first qualifying round by CFR Cluj as the Romanian side overturned a 1-0 defeat in Kazakhstan to win 3-2 on aggregate. Astana dropped into the Europa League and saw off Santa Coloma of Andorra and Maltese side Valletta, setting up a play-off against BATE Borisov. The Blue and Yellows squeaked through 3-2 on aggregate, having seen their 3-0 first leg win chipped away in Belarus.
Ukrainian coach… English executive director
Astana head coach Roman Hryhorchuk hails from Ukraine and started his managerial career in Latvia, before coaching in his homeland and then in Azerbaijan with Gabala. The former striker took charge of the Kazakh champions in June 2018 and works under an Englishman in Nur-Sultan. Paul Ashworth was appointed executive director of Astana in January, having worked in the structure of Norwich, Cambridge and Peterborough before moving further afield to make his name. The 49-year-old managed in Latvia and then became sporting director of Russian side Rostov, who United faced in their last Europa League campaign. Time in Nigeria was sandwiched in between further spells in Latvia, before he headed to Astana earlier this year.
Scott McTominay could come in handy in the build-up to Thursday match having been caught out by Kazakh opposition already this year. The United midfielder was part of the Scotland side defeated 3-0 in Astana in their Euro 2020 qualification opener. The Astana duo of Yevgeny Postnikov and Roman Murtazayev started for Kazakhstan that day, while Serikzhan Muzhikov came off the bench. Nemanja Matic could also prove helpful as Serbia team-mate Antonio Rukavina has travelled with the squad to Manchester, while Runar Mar Sigurjonsson was part of the Iceland squad who shocked England at Euro 2016. The star in the Astana ranks is Marin Tomasov, with the Croatian scoring seven goals in this season’s Europa League qualifying phase – a total only bettered by Rangers’ Alfredo Morelos.