Border skirmish: it's Russia v Ukraine in the Champions League

Every now and again, mainly when there’s no actual football being played, someone somewhere chirps up with the idea of creating a combined Russian and Ukrainian championship.

It’s a plan that’s unlikely to come to fruition any time soon. Still, a renewal of those fierce rivalries from the Soviet era would nevertheless create some mouthwatering fixtures and get more bums on seats.

Dynamo Kyiv versus Rubin Kazan wasn't one of those rivalries.

While the Ukrainians were a dominant force, Rubin didn’t begin to make waves in Russian football until their current manager Kurban Berdyev arrived at the club in 2001. The pair had never actually played each other until meeting in the Champions League two seasons ago.

Nevertheless, it is Ukraine against Russia in the Champions League tonight, in what is arguably the third qualifying round’s stand-out fixture. It is also one that both sides would probably rather have avoided, the loser falling through the trapdoor into the Europa League.

"The draw has thrown together the two best teams at this stage – there is no one stronger than Rubin and us,” affirmed Dynamo’s Russian manager Yuri Semin earlier this month.

“Games between Russian and Ukrainian clubs are always more interesting than matches against clubs from other countries.”

Two years ago, in the group stages of the Champions League, Dynamo took four points off Rubin with a 3-1 victory in Kyiv and a goalless draw in Tatarstan. But both sides are very different now, and in some respects you could argue they are both in transitional phases.

Dynamo have changed managers since those two encounters. It was during Valeri Gazzaev’s ill-fated reign that the clubs met, after Semin left Dynamo for another of his former sides, Lokomotiv Moscow, in June 2009. He returned last Christmas to take control of Ukraine’s most successful team once again. A rebuilding job is underway as he looks to revive their fortunes.

Dynamo fans will hope Oleksandr Aliyev comes good after returning to the club with Semin in the winter, while Nigerian midfielder Lukman Haruna has looked a decent addition to the midfield. Roman Eremenko and Ognjen Vukojevic may well be preferred in the centre, though.

At the back, Senegalese centre-back Pape Diakhate’s return from a loan spell in France has been like a new signing: he’s been a solid defender in the absence of the injured Taras Mikhalik.

Semin has also bought Nigerian striker Ideye Brown from Sochaux for €8 million.

The 22-year-old promised 20 goals this season upon his arrival, and has already made healthy inroads into that target with four in his opening one-and-a-half matches.

Dynamo have more options and they are probably the better of the two sides at this moment in time.

Last season Rubin displayed almost no ambition or attacking intent in the Champions League, and were widely criticised for their negative brand of football (they were unbeaten in three matches against Barcelona, mind).

Ahead of the new season Turkmen coach Kurban Berdyev spoke of his side playing a more expansive game. But while there were signs of improvement in the first third of their Premier League campaign, Friday’s soporific 1-0 win in Chechnya over Terek Grozny proves there’s still work to be done.

Doubtless the four new arrivals Berdyev hopes to bring in will aid this.

They’ll still play their counter-attacking football, though, and tonight’s game is unlikely to be a high-scoring affair.

Ecuadorian international Christian Noboa will be key for Rubin in the centre of midfield, as will the nippy Alan Kasaev out wide – one tricky customer. In defence, Salvatore Bocchetti could be restored to the starting line-up.

Berdyev has injury concerns, including €20m signing Carlos Eduardo, Cesar Navas and Aleksandr Ryazantsev, but they’ll still be a highly-organised team and a tough nut to crack.

However, they aren’t the Rubin of a couple of seasons ago.

The likes of influential midfielder Sergei Semak, playmaker Alejandro Dominguez and forward Aleksandr Bukharov have departed and a repeat of last year’s third-place finish domestically will be considered a success by Berdyev.

Rubin are currently fourth in Russia after 17 games. Qualification for the group stages of the Champions League this year, then, is important, as it is for Dynamo.

Despite losing to Braga in the quarter-finals of the Europa League last season, financially Dynamo earned far less than their arch-rivals Shakhtar Donetsk, who reached the same stage of the Champions League.

Some impressive performances in Europe earned Mircea Lucescu’s side €17.5m, while in comparison Dynamo pocketed just €4.56m.

They are the favourites tonight and probably for the tie as a whole, but if Rubin can get something - even an away goal to take back to Tatarstan, the second leg at Kazan’s Centralni Stadion could be very interesting.

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