In May 2017, Manchester United became just the fifth club to win all three major European trophies, with victory over Ajax in Stockholm. A little over two years later, the Red Devils venture into the Europa League once again after a short hiatus when the predominant Champions League was accessible. A sixth-placed finish in the 2018/19 Premier League season for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side means that the UCL’s little sister is on the agenda instead.
In their opening group stage fixture of this year’s competition, United are facing a club formed just eight years prior to that success in Sweden, Kazakhstani side FC Astana.
Formed in 2009, Astana are the winners of the Kazakhstan Professional Football League for the past five straight seasons, coached by Ukrainian manager Roman Hryhorchuk since the beginning of the 2018/19 season.
This is the Blue and Yellows’ seventh consecutive year in UEFA club competition, the highest point in 2015/16 in featuring in a Champions League group featuring Benfica, Atlético Madrid and Galatasaray (the campaign ended winless for Astana). In the Europa League, the club has never managed to progress past the group stage.
Astana is the former name of the Kazakhstan capital, Nur-Sultan, located in the north of the country. The city was renamed in March 2019 in honour of departed leader Nursultan Nazarbayev by his successor Kassym-Jomart Tomayev. FC Astana is located towards the Yesil District of the city.
In 2016, off the pitch, the club gained exposure in throwing their support behind 12-year-old Raiymbek Mergenbaev. Raiymbek developed cerebral palsy after being incorrectly vaccinated as a child, and now requires the constant use of a wheelchair. His mother, Raya, who is herself disabled, has had to raise him as a single parent after his father left the household.
FC Astana began an initiative to encourage food and clothes donations to the family after being alerted to the story by Channel 1 Eurasia. The staff at the club also generated a collection for medical assistance for Raiymbek in China.
Duly, he was also presented with a personalized jersey, as well as being invited to the Astana Arena for match-days.
Now the club is arriving in Manchester for a meeting with the 20-time English champions, three-time European Cup winners.
At Old Trafford in the Group L curtain-raiser, in terms of interesting battles to watch out for, Serbian international and Astana defender Antonio Rukavina has spoken about his side’s chances in Manchester, particularly in coming up against his compatriot and national teammate, the Man United midfielder Nemanja Matic. He said: “I hope we meet Nemanja in Manchester and can have dinner. This is a game in which, first of all, you need to enjoy football.
“It seems to me that any boy who starts playing football wants to play at such a stadium once. It’s hard to say that we will win. But there are always chances. We will have to proceed from tactics and our capabilities. Why not?
“Everything is possible in football. But again, it is important to enjoy this game. Playing at Old Trafford is a great honour for everyone.”