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Different pedigree, same goal: United, Astana look to qualify for Champions League group stage

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MANCHESTER, England — FC Astana did not exist when Manchester United became European champion for the third time in 2008.

The two teams have very different pedigrees but are chasing the same goal this week — qualification for the group stage of the Champions League.

Formed only six years ago, Astana will look to become the first team from Kazakhstan to advance to Europe's top level when it defends a 1-0 lead in the second leg of their playoff with APOEL Nicosia on Wednesday.

That's one of seven of the 10 playoff matchups where one goal separates the teams.

For United, things look much more comfortable as it seeks a return to the Champions League proper after missing out last season.

The English side beat Bruges 3-1 in the first leg at Old Trafford, with earning Louis van Gaal's men breathing space by scoring the third goal in injury time.

United is in good shape in Europe and has seven points from a possible nine to start the Premier League. So why the concern at Old Trafford?

The shouts of "attack, attack, attack" that are regularly heard at the so-called Theatre of Dreams may explain it.

United has scored two goals in three league games so far, one of them being an own goal. is without a competitive goal in 858 minutes and , not wanted by Van Gaal last season, is currently the only genuine back-up striker for Rooney.

United relied on two goals out of nothing from to recover from going 1-0 down early against Bruges last week, while Fellaini's last-gasp header came when the Belgians were down to 10 men.

Van Gaal has said United don't need another striker but the team looks way short of options if it wants to compete the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich in the Champions League. First, United needs to finish the job against Bruges, a Europa League quarterfinalist last season and the Belgian league runner-up.

"I don't think that we have a danger," Van Gaal said about complacency, "because the players shall know that Bruges is a very difficult club to beat."

Astana, a team backed by Kazkahstan's sovereign-wealth fund Samruk-Kazyna and in just its third season in European competition, travels more than 3,000 kilometers for its return leg against APOEL — a surprising quarterfinalist in the Champions League in 2012.

Qualifying for the group stage would be a huge boost for Kazakhstan, a country that is keen to use sports to boost its image.

Here are more things to look out for in the playoffs over Tuesday and Wednesday:


LAZIO INJURIES

Lazio heads to Bayer Leverkusen on Wednesday with a 1-0 lead but without two of its star players.

Already missing (calf), Lazio took another hit when captain was carried off on a stretcher with a calf injury during its opening game of Serie A on Saturday.

Lazio is looking to reach the Champions League group stage after an eight-year absence and ensure there will be three Italian representatives.


GOALKEEPER FOCUS

Valencia's quest to return to the Champions League after a two-year absence largely rests in the hands of Australia goalkeeper Matthew Ryan, a newcomer to Spain.

Ryan, signed after veteran starter Diego Alves tore a right-knee ligament at the end of last season, performed well in the 3-1 win over Monaco in the first leg and kept a clean sheet in his Spanish league debut on Saturday.

"We knew he had talent," Valencia coach Nuno Espirito Santo said about the 23-year-old Ryan. "He has to improve because he is still young."

Monaco is still without midfielder .


ELSEWHERE

In Tuesday's games, Celtic has a 3-2 lead at Malmo, FC Basel and Maccabi Tel Aviv are tied 2-2 for the return leg in Israel, while Shakhtar Donetsk and Dinamo Zagreb play at home leading Rapid Vienna 1-0 and Skenderbeu of Albania 2-1, respectively.

On Tuesday, Partizan Belgrade tries to overturn a 1-0 loss from the first leg at BATE Borisov and Sporting Lisbon heads to CSKA Moscoww with a 2-1 lead.

PHOTO: Manchester United's Wayne Rooney walks from the pitch after his team's scoreless draw in the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Newcastle at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
Manchester United's Wayne Rooney walks from the pitch after his team's scoreless draw in the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Newcastle at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Jon Super)

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PHOTO: Manchester United's Wayne Rooney walks from the pitch after his team's scoreless draw in the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Newcastle at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
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