Kazakhstan revel in shot at big time

But coach tells starstruck players to focus on long-ball game, not desire for fame
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The Independent Football

The message coming from the Kazakhstan coach, Bernd Storck, could hardly have been clearer: forget the shirt swaps and the photographs with Premier League stars you watch on television and focus on the task in hand.

But goalkeeper David Loria, an affirmed Chelsea fan and regular for local side Spartak Nalchik, who is hoping to dislodge Alexandr Mokin for the No1 jersey here today, seemed to have missed the point. "I want a shirt to remember the game by," Loria admitted – coveting John Terry's in particular. "I think a few of my team-mates feel the same way."

That's pretty much how the entire Kazakh nation feels about the biggest game in its history, one for which the threadbare Almaty National Stadium will be packed out at 9pm local time this evening, despite the dearest tickets costing 12,000 tenga (£48) – more than for any other game in the country's history and sizeably higher than the 50 tenga charged for most local club encounters. A Kazakh cabbie who had his hands on one seemed as starstruck as Loria yesterday, yelling "England, England," as he drove by.

Sergei Ostapenko, the burly lone striker whose 16 goals for FC Almaty have made him top scorer in the Kazakh league, had better focus though. "We know we have to avoid an absurd disaster," he said. "That's our aim as a team and my dream is to score a goal and show I can progress in football and move up a level. We know it's practically impossible to avoid a defeat but our pride will make sure we play the best match in our history."

Ostapenko's rise from a troubled childhood to become the national team's target man is a story which has charmed this young footballing nation, as has the German coach Storck's decision to build a new side based on youth. Look out today for 22-year-old Andrey Karpovich, captain for the first time with the ageing Ruslan Baltiev out with a knee injury, and 20-year-old Zhambyl Kukeyev, the latter seeming the most dangerous prospect in training as he showed off some fearsome shooting skills.

These two midfielders are considered the future of the Kazakh game and great store is also being set by Tanat Nuserbayev, apparently a target of AEK Athens though still living down his bad miss at Wembley with the scoreline at 0-0. "I want to make up for that," he said. "I have something to prove with the match being broadcast live and such an audience."

Storck is weighing up whether to start with him, though a more defence-minded midfielder seems likely. "Long ball, long ball," Storck kept shouting in training – as good a clue as any about his offensive strategy. The manager, previously coach of the Kazakh Under-21s, has eight uncapped players in his squad and insists he is building for the future. "[The football federation] ask me 'What about this player and this player and this player'," he said. "But I have very young players in my team and I'm working for next year, to gain experience against big teams like England."

Under floodlights here tonight, he simply wants his defenders to concentrate better than they have in conceding 10 second-half goals against England and Belarus, and even Ostapenko can live with a quiet evening if it means his defenders do their bit. "We made it hard for Belarus here; defended, kept it tight and frustrated them in the first half," he said.

"If we can improve our concentration we can do it for the whole game against England. If we make our best performance then we can still enjoy one of the greatest days in the country's history."

Perils of the 'easy' match: What could possibly go wrong?

1. Stuck in a rut

As the recent fuss surrounding a few divots at Wembley showed, the modern international has spent his whole career playing on pitches so perfectly manicured you could play crown green bowls on them. Advance reports suggest the Almaty Central Stadium will not meet their exacting standards. If a few players get spooked, anything could happen.

2. The Healy spectre

A World Cup qualifier away to a small, but proud footballing nation. Difficult conditions. A player in the form of his life. It is less than four years since David Healy scored the only goal at Windsor Park to condemn England to defeat against Northern Ireland in the 2006 qualifiers. And do not forget, England were once 1-0 down in a World Cup qualifier to San Marino.

3. Injury time

Despite more absentees than Gordon Brown's old Cabinet, there are enough elite players left in the squad for one to incur an injury which would leave Fabio Capello having to make one of those difficult phone calls to an irate club manager. On the plus side, as long as 11 players survive, England should beat Andorra at Wembley on Wednesday.

Glenn Moore