Kazakhstan commence their Euro 2024 qualification campaign when they host Slovenia at the Astana Arena on Thursday evening.
It is the first-ever competitive match between the two nations, with the rest of Group H made up by Denmark, Northern Ireland, San Marino and Finland.
Kazakhstan have never managed to qualify for a major international tournament, finishing fifth in their group the last time they attempted to qualify for the Euros, after being unable to match the likes of Belgium and Russia.
It was the same story in the Hawks’ qualifiers for the recent World Cup, picking up just three points in a tough group, containing eventual finalists France, as well as Ukraine, Finland and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
However, there are signs that Magomed Adiyev’s side are developing as a footballing nation, finishing top of their UEFA Nations League C group to secure promotion to League B in 2022, picking up a particularly impressive 1-0 victory away at Slovakia in the process.
After impressing against competition from the European confederation, the Hawks have been less successful in their recent matches against opponents from Asia, losing 2-0 against Uzbekistan before being defeated 2-1 by the United Arab Emirates.
It was a spirited display away in Abu Dhabi, with striker Abat Aymbetov getting on the scoresheet for the sixth time in a Kazakhstan shirt, but they were only able to muster up two shots on target all game, and an improved performance will be needed on Thursday.
Slovenia have managed to qualify for three major international tournaments over the years, playing at the European Championships in 2000, as well as two World Cups, in 2002 and 2010.
However, Kekci have found it more of a struggle to put a good run together during recent qualifiers, finishing fourth in their group in their most recent World Cup and European Championship campaigns.
In the Nations League, there were some promising signs for Matjaz Kek’s side, managing to retain their place in League B by picking up six points in as many games against tough opponents in Sweden, Slovenia and Norway.
Since then, Slovenia have gone from strength to strength, winning their two most recent friendly matches, first defeating Romania 2-1 away in Cluj before following it up with a 1-0 victory at home to Montenegro, courtesy of Miha Zajc’s first-half goal.
Kazakhstan’s main threat in attack is undoubtedly Aymbetov, with the striker picking up three goals and one assist in his last six competitive meetings for his national side, scoring nine goals in 19 games for FC Astana last season.
Astana teammate Elkhan Astanov is the likely choice at left wing, while Islambek Kuat and Askhat Tagybergen should feature in the middle, with Bakhtiyor Zaynutdinov on the right.
Tasked with keeping the Hawks’ first clean sheet in their last seven games should be Sergey Miliy, Nuraly Alip and Aleksandr Marochki at the heart of defence.
Slovenia have good reason to be hopeful heading into this qualification campaign, given the emergence of some fantastic young players, namely Benjamin Sesko, with the 19-year-old scoring 10 goals for Red Bull Salzburg in the league this season.
One player Kek will have to do without, however, is Jasmin Kurtic, who misses out through a knee injury, so Jon Gorenc Stankovic could slot into the centre of midfield.
Goalkeeper Jan Oblak continues to impress at the top level with Atletico Madrid, and the shot-stopper, who captains his national side, is a sure-fire starter between the sticks, with Miha Blazic and Jaka Bijol set for starts just in front of him.
Kazakhstan possible starting lineup:
Shatskiy; Kairov, Maliy, Yerlanov, Marochkin, Dosmagambetov; Zaynutdinov, Tagybergen, Kuat, Astanov; Aymbetov
Slovenia possible starting lineup:
Oblak; Stojanovic, Blazic, Bijol, Sikosek; Zajc, Gnezda Cerin, Stankovic, Verbic; Sporar, Sesko