Michael Yokhin profiles Dynamo Kiev, the double-winning invincibles looking to build on their stalemate with the Blues..
Who are they?
The visitors from Eastern Europe feel that they are moving in the right direction under the guidance of highly promising young coach Sergei Rebrov, and they are not far from reaffirming their status as the ultimate leaders of Ukrainian football. But the recent 3-0 home thrashing at the hands of Shakhtar Donetsk has severely dented that dream, and another league defeat could jeopardise their title challenge (they currently sit on the same points as Shakhtar at the top of the league).
To fully understand the Dynamo's background it's worth revisiting some recent history. In the Soviet Union times, Dynamo Kiev were the undisputed top club of Ukraine, fighting against teams from other republics. They always had the power to sign the best players, essentially looking at the likes of Shakhtar, Dnipro and Chernomorets as though they were feeder clubs.
Dynamo won 13 Soviet championship titles, and were the only Soviet team apart from Dinamo Tbilisi to succeed in Europe, lifting the Cup Winners’ Cup twice, in 1975 and 1986.
After the communist empire ceased to exist, Dynamo naturally continued to enjoy total hegemony, winning nine Ukrainian championship titles in a row between 1993 and 2001. They also had significant success in Europe, reaching the Champions League semi-finals in 1999.
However, Shakhtar gradually built a superb team of their own financed by Rinat Akhmetov, the richest businessman in the country. By the early 2000s the fight was on, as the two clubs were more or less equal.
As time went by, though, it became clear that Donetsk were taking over as the leading force. They enjoyed more stability, better long-term planning, a better squad, better scouting, built a modern stadium, and even represented Ukraine much better in Europe, winning the last edition of UEFA Cup in 2009.
Thereafter, Shakhtar won five championship titles in a row between 2010 and 2014, while Dynamo fell behind, even finishing third in 2013 and fourth in 2014. That was the all-time low point for Kiev, and disappointed fans started to lose hope.
Rebrov takes over
Dynamo won the double last season, finishing the league undefeated, beating Shakhtar in the cup final again, and performing admirably in Europa League as well
The revival started towards the end of that dreadful season when Oleg Blokhin was sacked, temporarily replaced by his assistant Rebrov, the former Tottenham and West Ham striker. The team immediately defeated Shakhtar in the cup final, the players asked the president Igor Surkis to make Rebrov’s appointment permanent, and the team never looked back.
Dynamo won the double last season, finishing the league undefeated, beating Shakhtar in the cup final again, and performing admirably in Europa League as well.
Since Shakhar were forced to leave their home due to the ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine, it felt like Dynamo would continue the positive momentum, and they started the current season in emphatic fashion.
But two weeks ago everything fell apart. Shakhtar, who beat Dynamo in the Super Cup, came to the Olympic Stadium, completely outplayed their bitter rivals in every possible sense and leapfrogged them in the table. This was the first league defeat for Rebrov since April 2014, and his leadership will now be tested.
Is he able to overcome the debacle and convince his players that it was just one bad day? Luckily for them, Chelsea have been in crisis for much longer already and the subsequent 0-0 draw between the pair may have suited both teams.
Dynamo have a nice blend of experienced and young players who believe in their coach and follow a very clear gameplan. They have leaders throughout the team, especially the local veterans who spent their entire careers at the club – 40-year-old goalkeeper Oleksandr Shovkovskiy and 32-year-old all-around midfielder Oleg Gusev.
Miguel Veloso is a great dead-ball specialist, former Manchester United target Aleksandar Dragovic is a very promising centre-back at the heart of the phenomenal Austria campaign in Euro 2016 qualifying, and Andriy Yarmolenko is the biggest star on the right wing, able to make life miserable for any defender.
After the fiasco versus Donetsk, the team is extremely fragile mentally. The national team players were mightily unfortunate to miss out on direct qualification for Euro 2016, as David de Gea stopped everything they threw at him to preserve a 1-0 Spain win in Kiev in the last round of fixtures.
Now Shakhtar have dealt them a damaging blow, and the feeling is that luck has suddenly deserted Rebrov’s side. Yarmolenko was so distraught after the Shakhtar loss that – after exchanging shirts with fellow Ukraine international Taras Stepanenko – he threw the orange shirt on the ground, and was heavily criticised for such misbehaviour.
Yarmolenko was so distraught that, after exchanging shirts with Taras Stepanenko, he threw the orange shirt on the ground
Handling the pressure is not the best quality of some Dynamo players, and centre-back Yevhen Khacheridi is especially prone to losing his temper – it’s resulted in countless errors, fouls and cards throughout his career. If Rebrov chooses Khacheridi in tonight's line-up, which is far from certain following his recent attitude, Chelsea could try to provoke him.
A low conversion rate by strikers, meanwhile – especially Artem Kravets – is another significant weakness.
Rebrov plays with three central midfielders and two fast wingers who like to cut inside and make space for attack-minded full-backs. The lone striker is very mobile, which makes marking him rather problematic, but on the other hand Dynamo lack significant physical presence in the penalty area.
It's quite amazing that Yarmolenko is still in Kiev. He was supposed to move to AC Milan back in 2012, and has been linked to countless clubs ever since. This summer a transfer to Liverpool, Arsenal or Borussia Dortmund was very much on the cards, especially taking into account that his contract with Dynamo expires next summer.
Surkis decided to keep him, though, and Yarmolenko might leave in the winter if his team fails to make it to the last 16 of the Champions League. Barcelona are reportedly interested in signing the winger, who possesses exquisite dribbling skills and has a very good eye for goal.
Yarmolenko smashes in against Rio Ave in last year's Europa League.
Mention Dynamo Kiev, and the name of Valery Lobanovsky immediately comes to mind. The great coach built many great teams at the club and is responsible for all their major successes since the '70s. Dynamo haven’t been the same since his death in 2001 at the age of 63, but there is hope that Rebrov, who learned a lot from his mentor, will be able to bring back some of the prestige.
Lobanovsky is definitely a legend, but so are the two greatest strikers Ukraine has ever produced. Both Oleg Blokhin and Andriy Shevchenko were raised at Dynamo, and while the former is a bit less popular now following his disastrous spell as a coach, the latter is worshipped. Naturally, Shevchenko’s name brings much less glamorous memories as far as Chelsea fans are concerned, and Dynamo faithful will dearly love to beat the team that “ruined” the European career of their idol.