Our man peeking out from behind the iron curtain, Mark Gilbey gives us the low-down on the former Soviet UnionÃ¢ÂÂs Champions League contenders: Rubin Kazan, Spartak Moskva and Shakhtar Donetsk
Ã¢ÂÂEveryone wants to play in the Champions League,Ã¢ÂÂ affirmed fleet-footed Spurs hotshot Jermain Defoe last month. Ã¢ÂÂOn Tuesday nights you donÃ¢ÂÂt want to be at home watching Eastenders Ã¢ÂÂ you want to be at White Hart Lane playing fantastic teams.Ã¢ÂÂ
ItÃ¢ÂÂs going to be grand for the little man, testing himself against Inter Milan, Werder BreÃ¢ÂÂ¦ Oh, right.
Never mind, lad. Those three months on the sidelines will soon fly by, and NMTB hears the Queen VicÃ¢ÂÂs going to look resplendent after its HD revamp.
In this seasonÃ¢ÂÂs group stages there are three sides from the former Soviet republics, and it wouldÃ¢ÂÂve been double that, had Dynamo Kyiv, Zenit St Petersburg and Sheriff Tiraspol not gone and bluminÃ¢ÂÂ well lost in the playoffs. The idiots.
HereÃ¢ÂÂs who has qualifiedÃ¢ÂÂ¦
Rubin Kazan (Russia)Group D: Barcelona, Panathinaikos, F.C. KÃÂ¸benhavn
Manager: Gurban BerdiÃÂ½ewFounded: 1958Nickname: Tartarstanti Current domestic league position: SecondKey player: Christian Noboa
ItÃ¢ÂÂs dÃÂ©jÃÂ vu for successive Premier-Liga winners Rubin and Cesc FÃÂ bregasÃ¢ÂÂ future employers, who meet for the second year running in the group stages.
Pass-pass-pass, pass-pass-pass-Messi might look all slick and polished on the telly and have commentators swooning and everything, but tika-taka wasnÃ¢ÂÂt all that successful in breaking down the TartarstantiÃ¢ÂÂs resolute defence during their last two meetings, was it?
Gurban BerdiÃÂ½ewÃ¢ÂÂs team took four points off Barcelona in 2009, three of which came following a smash-and-grab, 2-1 victory in Camp Nou that really made people sit up and take notice of Russian football. For a bit.
Said TourÃÂ© the younger: Ã¢ÂÂWe dominated the match, but dominating is not winning.Ã¢ÂÂ
Maybe there is something to this Ã¢ÂÂparking the busÃ¢ÂÂ lark after all.
Since then, prayer bead-clutching, Turkmen Tony Pulis look-alike Gurban BerdiÃÂ½ew has lost the services of influential players such as Alejandro DomÃÂnguez, Aleksandr Bukharov and Sergei Semak, yet the Russians have spent big this summer.
The roubles have always been there, but until now itÃ¢ÂÂs been attracting players to Tartarstan that has been RubinÃ¢ÂÂs AchillesÃ¢ÂÂ, unlike their Moscow and St Petersburg-based rivals.
Them damn WAGS, eh?
As lovely a city as it is, Kazan is a looooong way from the Russian capital Ã¢ÂÂ 450 miles to be precise. It could quite conceivably be 10 times that with its Central Asian vibe, however.
Still, if youÃ¢ÂÂve got one eye on your kidÃ¢ÂÂs future, the universityÃ¢ÂÂs not a bad institution to enrol them in; among its alumni are Leo Tolstoy and Lenin (kicked out for being too bolshie, natch).
This season some half-decent players have arrived in Kazan. And Obafemi Martins.
Carlos Eduardo (Hoffenheim, ÃÂ£17 million) and Salvatore Bocchetti (Genoa, ÃÂ£12 million) are the most notable recruits, in addition to the loan signing of a striker West Ham previously courted.
The Hammers took a Barry Fry, quantity-over-quality approach to buying forwards last season, and shouldÃ¢ÂÂve instead opted for Sergei Kornilenko, whoÃ¢ÂÂs been in fine form for Tom Tomsk this year, a side whoÃ¢ÂÂve sadly yet to explore sponsorship opportunities with a certain sat nav company.
The on-loan Zenit player scored 11 goals in 15 games for Tomsk before being re-farmed out to Rubin.
BerdiÃÂ½ewÃ¢ÂÂs team drew all three Champions League games last season at a sub-zero Centralniy Stadion, and no one will fancy the onerous midweek journey to Kazan.
Best pack your long johns, Pep.
Spartak Moskva (Russia)Group F: Chelsea, Marseille, MSK Ã Â½ilina
Manager: Valery KarpinFormed: 1922Nickname: The People's ClubCurrent domestic league position: SixthKey player: Welliton (above)
Spartak Moskva really, really wanted Aiden McGeady.
People often aver Russia is a unique, complex country, difficult for foreigners to understand, which is why the club have bent over backwards for the Celtic winger and have given him (in addition to ÃÂ£40,000 per week) a car/driver, translator, swanky pad and a bodyguard.
Yeah, Ã¢ÂÂcos it should be hard for him, leaving Scotland and relocating to a nation of cheap booze, sporadic scrapping and inclement weatherÃ¢ÂÂ¦
And at his beck and call are two chefs, should he not fancy some hearty Russian fare (bread with everything), or dining at one of those absurd sushi-pizza restaurants.
Russian dressing instead of tomato sauce on a pizza indeed! ThatÃ¢ÂÂs Ã¢ÂÂout thereÃ¢ÂÂ even for Heston wotisface.
Dunno why he wants a translator though. McGeady need only be familiar with two words: Ã¢ÂÂproblemÃ¢ÂÂ and Ã¢ÂÂadministratorÃ¢ÂÂ; mercifully, these are exactly the same as their English equivalents.
The Brazilian playmaker Alex is the chap pulling the strings in midfield and is one to watch, as is his fellow countryman Welliton, whoÃ¢ÂÂs been filling his boots in Russia this season (sorry, them Ã¢ÂÂWellington bootÃ¢ÂÂ headlines are going to be flying about if he replicates his domestic form in the Champions League. Think how hackneyed the VÃÂ¡gner Love/From Russia with Love ones have become). ItÃ¢ÂÂs 15 goals in 16 games for the 23-year-old so far.
On the opposite wing to McGeady, the youngÃ¢ÂÂun Zhano Ananidze isnÃ¢ÂÂt a regular yet, but is coveted by some of EuropeÃ¢ÂÂs biggest clubs. The 17-year-old Georgian is predictably drawing comparisons with Georgi Kinkladze, mainly because they are both a) wingers and b) Georgian.
Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine)Group H: Arsenal, SC Braga, FK Partisan
Manager: Mircea Lucescu (above, right)Formed: 1936Nickname: HirnykyCurrent domestic league position: FirstKey player: Douglas Costa
ItÃ¢ÂÂs a swift return to Foggy Albion for Eduardo (pictured above, left), who faces former club Arsenal in Group H.
As per that unwritten law of football, Dudu will at some point score against the Gunners Ã¢ÂÂ probably a 30-yard, last-minute winner at the Emirates. But wonÃ¢ÂÂt celebrate.
Last seasonÃ¢ÂÂs Ukrainian champions are top of the table again and have re-signed sagacious, girly haired centre-back Dmytro Chygrynskiy (heÃ¢ÂÂs got a MasterÃ¢ÂÂs yÃ¢ÂÂknow) for ÃÂ£8 million less than Barcelona paid them a year ago; a fair of old whack of which has been spent prising promising midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan away from their city rivals Metalurg.
HeÃ¢ÂÂs Ã¢ÂÂone for the futureÃ¢ÂÂ, like several ShakhtarÃ¢ÂÂs summer signings, but the 21-year-old Armenian is likely to see more game time than he imagined after Fernandinho broke his leg last Friday during ShakhtarÃ¢ÂÂs first defeat of the season at the hands of Obolon Kyiv.
Mircea Lucescu claims heÃ¢ÂÂs the best Brazilian defensive midfielder in Europe. While thatÃ¢ÂÂs up for debate, heÃ¢ÂÂs the heartbeat of the Shakhtar team and his loss is a massive blow to the UkrainianÃ¢ÂÂs aspirations of reaching the next round.
Step up Championship Manager starlet Douglas Costa, who is now demonstrating the kind of form that had gamers across the land splurging on the Brazilian a while back. Box of tricks, that lad is.
Fans of Wigan flops are in for a disappointment though. Flop #1, goal-shy somersaulting Nigerian striker Julius Aghahowa, has been loaned out to newly-promoted PFC Sevastopol, while Flop #2 goal-shy not-somersaulting Bolivian Marcelo Moreno will most likely find himself on the bench.
Arsenal fans might want to a book a Wizzair flight to Kyiv and take the overnight train to Donetsk for their fixture at Fortress Donbass if theyÃ¢ÂÂve got more time than money. Tickets from the UK to eastern Ukraine ainÃ¢ÂÂt cheapÃ¢ÂÂ¦