Kazakh road to Wembley is an Almaty long way

Since leaving the Asian federation, England's next opponents feel they have made progress in the quest for acceptance
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The Independent Online

The thing with difficult journeys is that they tend to be difficult in both directions. So, while England may not be relishing their 13-hour flight to Almaty next summer, nor are Kazakhstan particularly enthused by their trip to England this week, a point their Dutch coach, Arno Pijpers, was at pains to make after seeing his team well-beaten 3-0 in Zagreb last month.

Which begs the question, of course, that if travel is such a factor, what on earth are they doing in Uefa? The answer is bound up in the complex politics of mid-Asia and Kazakhstan's determination to be perceived as a European nation, but there is a clear feeling that from a football point of view they have improved since leaving the Asian federation in 2003.

"There are just a few good teams in Asia," explained the experienced full-back Samat Smakov. "We learnt something from playing against the quick Korean players and the smart and tricky Japanese. But we didn't get many European scouts coming to see us play, and I was lucky to get my move to Russia with FK Rostov."

The cumulative exhaustion of the flights to and from Zagreb were blamed for the 3-1 home defeat to Ukraine four days later, but the excuse was not good enough to save Pijpers. He was sacked and replaced, at least on a temporary basis, by the Under-21 coach, the German Bernd Storck. "How long we should endure it?" asked Sayan Kamitzhanov, the secretary-general of the football federation."We are ashamed of the existing situation and we all must apologise to the country's fans for it." That seems a little harsh, given Pijpers had led them to home victories over Serbia and Armenia, and had drawn home and away against Belgium in the qualifiers for Euro 2008, giving Kazakhstan's membership of Uefa some credibility.

Still, that does not mean the scouts are flocking to Almaty, and Smakov has since returned to Aktobe. In the defeat to Croatia, the entire starting XI was based domestically, with the Dynamo Moscow midfielder Andrei Karpovich, the only foreign-based player, on the bench. That perhaps explains the almost total unfamiliarity of their squad.

When the Croatia coach Slaven Bilic gave his press conference last month, the whiteboard in the corner of the room bore just two names: at the top of the page, that of the Shakhter Karagandy goalkeeper Georgi Loria, and at the bottom that of the FC Almaty centre-forward Sergei Ostapenko.

The tall, languid Ostapenko, who scored twice in the 3-0 win over Andorra with which Kazakhstan began the campaign and added another against Ukraine, had an unsuccessful stint in Belgium with Royal Antwerp, but presents a clear threat. Loria, who played seven games for Halmstad in Sweden and had a trial for PSV Eindhoven, made a handful of smart reaction saves against Croatia but was hopelessly exposed by the crossed ball and was at least partly responsible for the opening Croatia goal.

Had Croatia not been gifted that start, Kazakhstan might have frustrated them, for they showed enough composure in possession after the break to suggest they were rather better than they looked in the first half.

That may, admittedly, have been in part the result of Croatia easing off having taken a 2-0 lead, but it did suggest that with encouragement, Kazakhstan could be awkward. Memories of Macedonia at Old Trafford are fresh enough that England should have no cause for complacency. Still, the real test should be Almaty next June.

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