Jorge Jesus led Benfica to three Europa League semi-finals and two finals in his Benfica days, and the charismatic coach is aiming for similar success in the competition with Sporting this season.

The Lions face the long trip to Kazakhstan to take on the largely unknown Astana in a last-32 tie on Thursday.

Manuel Veth, an expert in football in the post-Soviet states, gives PortuGOAL the lowdown on the Kazakh champions.

 

How did Astana get here? Give us a quick guide to Astana’s path to this stage of the competition.

This is the first time a team from Kazakhstan has advanced to this stage. Astana got here after failing to qualify for the Champions League group stage and then finished second in a group that included Tel-Aviv, Slavia Praha and Villarreal.

 

Current form. How have Astana looked form-wise in recent weeks?

That is a good question. Astana have not played a competitive game since their matchday six Europa League fixture against Slavia Praha. Kazakhstan uses the old Soviet spring to fall schedule, which means the 2017 season ended in December. Astana have been at various training camps and the game against Sporting will be their first competitive fixture this year.

 

Ones to watch - Who are Astana’s star players?

The biggest star is Patrick Twumasi. The forward was linked with a move to Germany and Russia this winter, but for now seems to stay put. The 23-year-old native of Ghana is a classic attacking winger, who is hard to defend against. He did, however, lose his partner in crime Junior Kabananga this winter. The Congolese striker was the club’s other big star, but he has left to play in Saudi Arabia.

 

Strong points/weak points – what must Sporting beware of and what can they exploit?

Astana are a force at home. The club really exploits the fact that teams have to travel a long way to get to the Kazakh capital. Stanimir Stoilov likes to play attacking football and his squad is not afraid of big names coming to Astana. The team will, however, lack match fitness and it will be interesting to see how they will cope with the departure of Kabananga.

 

Formation and playing style – what system do Astana usually play? Would you describe them generically as an attacking or a defensive team?

Stoilov plays a classic 4-2-3-1 formation that sometimes turns into a 4-3-3. He is definitely a coach who likes to attack rather than defend.

 

What are the local press saying about the tie? What are the expectations as regards Astana’s participation in the Europa League?

There is a lot of pride that a team from Kazakhstan has reached this stage. At this point any other positive result will be seen as a bonus.

 

Mood in the camp – judging by player/coach quotes regarding this game, do you think Astana go into the match in a confident frame of mind?

I think they got nothing to lose. They know that at home they can get a result, which is something they have shown in the past.

 

What do you think the result of the match will be?

I think the best Astana can hope for is a draw to be honest. But my tip is that Sporting will win this as Astana will struggle without match fitness. 

 

Our thanks to Manuel Veth. Follow Manuel on twitter @ManuelVeth

 

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