Russian and Ukrainian teams need to step up their game and translate UEFA Cup victories into Champions League success, Zenit St Petersburg's 2008 UEFA Cup winning captain Anatoliy Tymoshchuk told Reuters.
Tymoshchuk's former club Shakhtar Donetsk from his native Ukraine take on Germany's Werder Bremen in Istanbul on Wednesday, vying to become the third former Soviet club in five years to win Europe's second-tier club competition.
Despite CSKA Moscow's UEFA Cup triumph in 2005 and Zenit St Petersburg's last year, no club from Russia or Ukraine has progressed beyond the Champions League group stage since 2004 when Lokomotiv Moscow fell in the first knockout round.
"The achievements in Europe (UEFA Cup) are the result of the attitude and growing rivalry in the (domestic) championships," Tymoshchuk, a distinctive figure on the field with long blond hair held back by a headband, said in an e-mail interview.
"Such victories are important; the clubs need them for development. But they need new efforts to step up to the next level -- I mean the Champions League.
"If you want to be successful in the long term, it's necessary to develop the sporting process and organisation. The club must show ambition and commitment to be successful in the Champions League."
In one-off games Eastern European sides have shown they can hold their own.
Zenit beat Champions League winners Manchester United to win last year's European Super Cup, while Shakhtar beat Champions League finalists Barcelona 3-2 in a group game in December albeit with the Spaniards fielding a second-string side.
One reason for their faltering Champions League campaigns could be the timing of the group stages, which come near the end of the Russian domestic season when players are tired and teams may be depleted because of injuries.
By contrast, the UEFA Cup knockout rounds, which feature some of the clubs eliminated from the Champions League, come near the start of the Russian season when players are fresh.
The vast distances teams travel for league games in a country that spans 11 time zones also do not help.
In the week CSKA lost to Porto in a Champions League group game in 2006, they had just completed a return trip to the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok, a nine-hour plane journey one way.
Ukraine international Tymoshchuk, who spent a decade at Shakhtar before joining Zenit in 2007, said the achievement of his national team in reaching the quarter-finals of the 2006 World Cup had helped the game improve at club level. "Participating in the World Cup gave confidence and experience to players and it helped them develop their abilities," the 30-year-old defensive midfielder said. "It had a positive influence on the future of Ukrainian football.
"We felt the support of the whole country. All the players are doing their best to be successful in the current qualification campaign for the 2010 World Cup."
Shakhtar knocked out compatriots Dynamo Kiev in the UEFA Cup semi-finals, while Metalist Kharkiv could also have been flying the Ukrainian flag later in the competition had they not drawn Dynamo in the last 16.
Bringing in foreign players and coaches, thanks to billionaire clubs owners like Shakhtar's Rinat Akhmetov, has contributed to improving standards too.
"The arrival of foreigners and the development of football schools in Ukraine are part of the same process," said Tymoshchuk, who is joining Bayern Munich later this year.
"Top-level foreigners can be useful for Ukrainian football but there are Ukrainian players who also play key roles in their teams."
Asked if he had any advice for his former team for Wednesday's final, Tymoshchuk said: "They need to acknowledge that they have only done half the job by getting to the final.
"The other part is to win and this step is the hardest part."comments