Two-year ban a cruel blow for Shakhtar keeper Rybka

Football is still to emerge from its winter hibernation in Ukraine.

And with temperatures well below zero at the moment, it is around this time of year when many Premier League clubs head off to training camps in sunnier climes to whip themselves into shape for the second half of the season. Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Spain are the destinations of choice for most.

Shakhtar Donetsk swapped the bleak weather of Ukraine’s industrial east for Dubai last month, and are now in Spain to participate in the unimaginatively named Copa del Sol.

The domestic season resumes in just a few weeks, but one player who isn't going to be featuring any time soon is the Pitmen’s goalkeeper, Oleksandr Rybka.

Just two days after featuring in Shakhtar’s 4-0 win away to Karpaty Lviv last November, UEFA officials turned up at the club’s Kirsha training base to perform random drug tests on 10 players, one of whom was Rybka.

Unbeknown to Shakhtar officials, the 24-year-old had taken slimming pills containing a banned diuretic, and while that in itself is not a stimulant, what it possesses is the ability to mask doping.

The hope was that Rybka would escape with just a six-month ban, but on Monday he and Shakhtar’s worst fears were realised when UEFA handed him the maximum sentence: two years.

The club will stick by Rybka, who only signed a two-year deal in the summer and soon they intend to launch an appeal.

"In the best-case scenario we want to annul this disqualification," affirmed Shakhtar’s CEO Sergiy Palkin.

"If not, we will try to shorten it as much as possible… Oleksandr said himself that he took this substance. But we consider UEFA's decision to be wrong because he took it after the game… If he took it before the game it would be different.”

UEFA have also requested that FIFA make it a global ban. As it stands, the earliest Rybka can return to action is 10 January 2014.

The punishment is a cruel blow for a player who has been something of a revelation at Shakhtar since arriving from minnows Obolon Kyiv a littler over six months ago.

Arguably Rybka was the league’s best goalkeeper last year. He’s also one of the few players to have emerged with any credit from what was a pretty disastrous Champions League campaign.

Outside of Ukraine, his transfer would barely have registered among fans, yet within the country some consider it to be a historic one for the championship.

Rybka came through the ranks at Shakhtar’s arch-rivals Dynamo Kyiv, and although he was always second fiddle to Oleksandr Shovkovskiy, the shot-stopper spent six years with his hometown club. It was a transfer that divided fans in Ukraine.

Serhiy Rebrov and Oleh Matveev may have crossed the divide in the past, but their moves were at a time when Shakhtar could hardly be considered true competitors to Dynamo in the Ukrainian championship.

Not long after signing the contract, photos of Rybka looking a little worse for wear in a Kyiv nightclub were leaked online. Although it later transpired they were taken four years ago, the episode made for an embarrassing start to life in Donetsk for Rybka, who was forced to explain himself at his new club.

To some quarters of the Shakhtar faithful, it didn’t matter that he made his way to Donetsk via Obolon, and not directly from Dynamo.

Rybka was taunted on his debut by the ultras behind his goal, but such has been his impact that Shakhtar supporters voted him as the club’s player of the year.

“I just tried to do a quality job,” he admitted. “It took some time to win the fans’ support.”

And while Rybka won over one set of supporters, it was perhaps natural there would be those in Ukraine’s capital unhappy with his move east.

After a game in Kyiv last October during which Dynamo fans had vented their disapproval, another controversial photo of Rybka appeared in the Ukrainian press; this time of him apparently making an obscene gesture to the crowd. He denies it though, claiming the image may have been Photoshopped.

In just six months, Rybka has gone from playing at the league’s smallest club to the biggest, displaying form that made the national team’s head coach Oleh Blokhin take notice.

He made his international debut for Ukraine against Estonia in October, and even saved a penalty. Rybka has won over 40 caps at various youth levels in the past and it seemed finally that he had the platform at Shakhtar to realise his potential.

Barring an injury, Shovkovskiy will be Blokhin’s number one at this summer’s European Championships that Ukraine co-host with Poland, but Rybka would almost certainly have made the 23-man squad.

Blokhin is fortunate that he can call on Andriy Pyatov, whom Rybka usurped at Shakhtar, while Spartak Moscow’s Andriy Dykan also has international experience.

Shovkovskiy turned 37 last month though and with regular first team football, Rybka will have had his eye on being the long-term successor to a goalkeeper he spent so many years as understudy to at Dynamo.

Shakhtar were prepared for a ban. Bohdan Shust was recalled from a loan spell at Illychivets Mariupil recently but UEFA enforcing the maximum sentence has come as a shock in Donetsk.

Rybka’s ban is just the latest issue for Shakhtar this year as they prepare for the defence of their Premier League title.

Putting aside the upheaval surrounding Willian’s future, his fellow Brazilian Jádson has returned home and there is also a dispute with Artem Fedetskiy at Karpaty

Plus, Lucescu has been absent during the winter break. The 66-year-old suffered several broken ribs and a lung laceration after being involved in a car crash with a tram in his native Romania last month, leaving assistant coach Alexandru Spiridon to take charge of first team affairs while he recuperates.

The return of Ilsinho has also sparked debate among fans after the Brazilian controversially walked out of the club in 2010 following a messy contract dispute

It remains to be seen just how this chaotic month will affect Shakhtar’s title chances, in what is a three-horse race this season.

Unbeaten Dynamo lead Shakhtar by a point, but Metalist Kharkiv aren’t too far behind and Myron Markevych’s side did win at the Donbass Arena earlier in the campaign. Ten rounds remain and Shakhtar still have both to play.

Their first game when things pick up again next month is against Juande Ramos’ Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk though; they are well off the pace in fourth, but the former Sevilla and Tottenham Hotspur coach will be looking for his side to finish strongly after such a disappointing campaign so far.

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