Kazakhstan: Astana Gives Soccer Rivals the Chills
In the international soccer stakes, the capital of Kazakhstan is becoming the away destination that clubs dread to visit.
As Europe is gently settling into the cooler weather of November, the players of FC Astana are already familiar with temperatures below freezing.
If the weather was frosty for the visiting Atletico Madrid squad, who traveled to Astana for the latest Champions League group stages match on November 3, the greeting certainly wasn’t.
Europe’s premier competition has proven a major draw and the 30,000-seater Astana Arena was again full to capacity for Tuesday’s game, although traffic snarls meant many ended up missing the first 15 minutes.
FC Astana is becoming the master of grinding out the tedious draw, and they did their magic against a lackluster Atletico, thereby ensuring their unbeaten home record.
Fans were kept on the edge of their seats to the very end. A last-minute save from FC Astana's Nenad Eric denied Atletico and preserved the goalless scoreline.
The 0-0 result won’t get any hearts racing, but but it does mean that Astana still have a slender chance of progressing in the competition. In October, Astana held Turkey's Galatasaray to a 2-2 draw. The team has two points out of four games, which is more than some pundits might have expected of them.
The sub-zero temperatures in Kazakhstan's capital, the second coldest in the world after Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, were expected to make life difficult for their Madrilenian opponents.
“Maybe the cold weather will cause Atletico problems. We can open the roof in the stadium a bit to make it tougher for them,” FC Astana's Bulgarian coach Stanimir Stoilov joked ahead of the game.
The roof remained closed for the match, but Atletico failed to warm up until the last quarter of the match. The home crowd erupted in cheers every time Astana mounted an attack, but the poor finishing meant nothing was realistically going to happen.
Former Liverpool and Chelsea star Fernando Torres received a big cheer at the start of the match but he too had an off-night. He was substituted in the 64th minute and so remains stranded at 99 career goals for his boyhood club.
For this meeting, Astana fielded a strong line-up after it lost 4-0 in Madrid in October, Stoilov was criticized by some for resting a number of key players ahead of Astana's crunch meeting with Almaty's FC Kairat in the battle for this season's Kazakh Premier League title.
The decision paid off as Astana won that match 1-0. It now leads the standings by one point from Kairat with one match to play at home to Aktobe on November 8.