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Mata backs Diego Costa after Spain axing

Diego Costa

The Chelsea forward was left in the cold for the clashes against Luxembourg and Ukraine, but his national team-mate insisted that with patience he would find his way back.

Juan Mata has defended Diego Costa's form for Spain after the striker was left out of the national squad and replaced by Alvaro Morata for the upcoming Euro 2016 qualifiers.

Costa is suspended for the game with Luxembourg on October 9, but the 27-year-old would have been available to face Ukraine in Kiev three days later.

Head coach Vicente Del Bosque insisted the Chelsea striker was only left out because of his ban for one of the two games, but he has struggled since pledging his allegiance to Spain over Brazil, scoring once in nine caps.

Manchester United star Mata, though, has sympathy for the tough task Costa faces as part of a Spain team that plays with a slow, passing style.

"Being the striker in a team like ours, with so many midfielders, is not easy," the playmaker told.

"You have have to adapt and above all be patient, because there is a lot of time without touching the ball. But when you do get it you have to finish well. It is a very complicated role and players like [David] Villa or [Fernando] Torres did it very well, but it is difficult to come in and adapt.

"It is very difficult to face him. I would rather have him as a team-mate than a rival. His movement and goals will always create problems. Also because he fights with the centre-backs and causes friction that somehow knocks the opponents' concentration."

Costa has been a target for significant criticism in England, particularly since his clash with Arsenal defenders Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel which eventually landed him a retrospective three-match suspension. 

Mata again defended his international team-mate, saying that aggression has always been part of Costa's game.

He continued: "That is his game and always has been - it is not new. Now it seems to be talked about more because he is in the Premier League and he is something different from what was there, but he has always played well."


Astana host Galatasaray in Kazakhstan's first Champions League game

Astana host Galatasaray in Kazakhstan's first Champions League game

Football fans in Kazakhstan's capital Astana are eagerly gearing up to welcome Turkish team Galatasaray for the first ever Champions League group match in the Central Asian nation on Wednesday.

FC Astana already made history when they visited Portuguese giants Benfica to play their first ever group stage encounter in Europe's most prestigious and lucrative competition two weeks ago, losing 2-0.

"It's absolutely fantastic, to watch your team play in the Champions League," 23-year-old supporter Yermek Serkebayev told AFP ahead of Wednesday's game.

"Galatasaray fans welcome the visiting teams with their famous slogan: 'Welcome to hell'.

"But they've never been here at Astana before. We're set to show them what the real support of your beloved team can be."

FC Astana shot to prominence after they were established in the winter of 2008-09 from a merger of two clubs from Kazakhstan's former capital Almaty, FC Alma Ata and FC Megasport.

The ambitious project saw immediate success despite shifting some 1,200 kilometres from their initial home, and they finished second in Kazakhstan's top flight in their maiden season.

However, the club were not allowed to play in European competition for licensing reasons until the 2013-14 season, when they made their debut in the Europa League.

The appointment of Bulgarian manager Stanimir Stoilov in June 2014 was the turning point for the club as the 48-year-old led Astana to their first national title in the same year.

"Our manager is a many-sided man," Astana's Serbian goalkeeper Nenad Eric said about Stoilov.

"His role in our success can hardly be under-estimated."

Local star Georgy Zhukov, Colombian Roger Canas and Serb Nemanja Maksimovic form the backbone of Astana's midfield, while Foxi Kethevoama of the Central African Republic and Baurzhan Dzholchiev spearhead the attack.

Under Stoilov the Kazakh club favour an offensive style of football, especially when playing at their 33,000-seat home venue.

In their first Champions League match against two-time former champions Benfica, the rookies of Astana failed to shine in attack.

However, Stoilov pledged that his team would step up their game and promised that his men will show their best on their home turf against Turkish giants Galatasaray.

"We want to play our own style, it's very important for the team," he said.

"In Lisbon we were not bad at all, especially in the first half.

"In the second, Benfica showed their level so we have to salute them. We played a bit defensively, but at home, being more attacking, I believe we can score."

On Wednesday, Astana will still be without their Ghanaian forward Patrick Twumasi, who is serving a six-match ban after being sent off in the clash with HJK Helsinki in the third qualifying round.

The club from Kazakhstan's capital were beaten in the last two domestic league matches.

But their manager said he believed that these failures will not affect his team's performance in the Champions League.

"The right to play in the Champions League is a reward that we've earned," he said.

"And we'll do our best to represent Astana and the whole of Kazakhstan in Europe with dignity."


Llorente ruled out of Juventus clash

Fernando Llorente

Fernando Llorente has been ruled out of Sevilla's trip to Juventus in the Champions League.

Sevilla striker Fernando Llorente has failed to recover from a muscle strain in time for their upcoming Champions League fixture.

The injury robs Llorente of the chance to compete against his old club Juventus in Turin on Wednesday.

The 30-year old was not included in coach Unai Emery’s squad after sitting out Sevilla’s La Liga win against Rayo Vallecano on Saturday.

Medical staff from Sevilla decided not to risk Llorente for the fixture, preferring him to be fit for their clash with Barcelona.

Midfielder Vitolo will also miss the clash against Juventus, while 20-year-old left-back Matos comes into squad.

Both teams sit on three points in Group D after making winning starts to their campaigns.


Pioli vows Lazio will take Europa League seriously

Stefano Pioli

Lazio will take the Europa League seriously and aim to bag the full three points in their opener versus Dnipro, says Stefano Pioli.

Stefano Pioli insists that Lazio will give their all to go far in the Europa League as they prepare for Thursday's Group G opener against last year's runners-up Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk.

The Serie A outfit failed to qualify for the Champions League group stages after Bayer Leverkusen proved to be too strong in the play-offs, but that does not mean they will be taking Europe's secondary competition lightly.

"It is important to start with a positive result. We lost a dream when we did not qualify for the group stages of the Champions League, but we have to think about the present and the future. The Europa League is a prestigious competition and it is important to get off to a winning start," said Lazio boss Pioli.

"This competition is as important to us as Serie A. We have the quality to win any game and we have to try to progress to the next round."

Dnipro lost the final to Sevilla in May and Pioli warned against underestimating the Ukrainian side.

"Dnipro are a very complete team. They have a lot of pace and play very intense. Those are their biggest weapons," Pioli added.

"We have to make sure we make the right choices to prevent them from playing their own game.

"We know that it will not be easy, but we want to charge forward whenever possible. We want to prove that we are competitive."


Celtic look to bounce back from Aberdeen defeat

Ajax vs Celtic

Celtic face a difficult task to advance from Europa League Group A and their hopes could receive an early setback with defeat away to Ajax.

After being denied a place in the Champions League group stage with a 2-0 loss in Malmo having won the first leg of that play-off round tie 3-2 at home, the Scottish champions now find themselves pooled with Ajax, Fenerbahce and Molde.

The last-named Norwegian club are clearly the outsiders of the quartet, but Fenerbahce and Ajax will provide very stern opposition and it looks an uphill task for Celtic to qualify for the last 32.

They have recent experience of facing the Dutch outfit from two seasons ago in the Champions League group stage when each match ended in a home win, 2-1 to Celtic and 1-0 to Ajax.

Both teams exited the competition on that occasion although Ajax finished only one point behind runners-up AC Milan and five adrift of Barcelona, with the Hoops tailed off at the bottom of the table.

There had been little wrong with Celtic’s form this term until the disappointment in Malmo, but another blow has followed with Sunday’s 2-1 defeat to Aberdeen.

A Leigh Griffiths penalty looked to have put Ronny Deila’s side on the way to three points at Pittodrie, but they conceded from a spot-kick themselves converted by Adam Rooney and even though the Dons went down to 10 men they still grabbed a winner through Paul Quinn.

The Celtic camp were unhappy with some of the refereeing decisions, but nevertheless it was a less than ideal way to go into a big European game knowing they now have to play catch-up in the Premiership title race.

Ajax, meanwhile, have no such worries because they sit top of the Eredivisie table and a reaction was needed from Frank de Boer’s side after trailing in 17 points behind champions PSV Eindhoven last season.

Like Celtic, their Champions League ambitions were snuffed out early as they lost 5-4 on aggregate to Rapid Vienna, but then Ajax went on a run of six straight clean sheets before a 2-2 draw with Twente at the weekend.

In team news, Celtic are likely to elevate Nadir Ciftci, Efe Ambrose and James Forrest into the starting line-up, with Tyler Blackett expected to continue at centre-back.

Viktor Fischer, Kaya Sanogo and Ricardo van Rhijn are all a chance to start for Ajax following impressive performances off the bench against Twente.

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