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Benfica v Astana: New boys face tough debut

UEFA Champions League group-stage debutants Astana face a tough opening test as they head to the Estadio da Luz to meet European stalwarts Benfica.

Stanimir Stoilov’s men have already made history by becoming the first Kazakh side to reach the group stage of the competition and they certainly earned their place in the last 32, defeating APOEL, HJK Helsinki and Maribor in the qualifying rounds.

Formed as recently as 2009, Astana have swiftly established themselves as a domestic powerhouse and will journey to Portugal in impressive form having lost only four of the 34 matches they have played in all competitions this year.

Unfortunately for the visitors, however, they will be denied the services of prolific Ghanaian striker Patrick Twumasi, who is serving a suspension having been sent off against HJK Helsinki in the third qualifying round.

Benfica, meanwhile, warmed up for what will be their sixth successive group stage campaign by trouncing Belenenses 6-0 at the weekend, with on-loan Fulham man Kostas Mitroglou and Brazilian striker Jonas each bagging a brace.

That result kept the reigning Portuguese champions in second place, a point below leaders Porto and capped a memorable week for leading scorer Jonas during which he also signed a contract extension with the club.

Rui Vitoria’s men will be confident of making a winning start to their Champions League campaign having suffered only one defeat in their last 14 European home games and they will also be keen to make amends for last season’s poor showing when they finished bottom of Group C after accruing just five points.

Indeed, they have only managed to make it through to the quarter-finals once in the last seven attempts, losing to Chelsea in 2012 and will surely have to pick up three points on Tuesday if they are to stand any chance of emerging from a tough group that also contains Galatasaray and Atletico Madrid.

Argentine midfielder Nicolas Gaitan and strike duo Jonas and Mitroglou were withdrawn during the second-half of the Belenenses game with a view to keeping them fresh for the Astana clash.

Long-term absentee Eduardo Salvio, meanwhile, will again miss out for the hosts as he recovers from knee surgery and Adel Taarabt is unlikely to feature as he is yet to make a single competitive appearance for his new club since signing from QPR in June.

Sun 13 Sep, 2015
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