Unravelling the enigma of football in the post-Soviet republics
There may well have been a sore head or two among the ranks of the Obolon Kyiv team yesterday morning.
The club’s president Oleksandr Slobodyan holds a similar position at Ukraine’s largest brewery, also called Obolon, so the 54-year-old surely had the ale flowing freely after their shock 1-0 victory over Shakhtar Donetsk at the Donbass Arena on Saturday.
That long, unbeaten home record Mircea Lucescu’s side are so proud of dates back to 2008 and was always going to come to an end at some point of course; it’s just that no one foresaw defeat in Donetsk to more modest opposition in the form of Obolon though.
After the 5-1 thrashing Barcelona meted out last week at Camp Nou, it seemed most likely it would be the artistry of Lionel Messi and co. that would confine Shakhtar’s impressive run to the annals of history.
These are supposed to be times of celebration in eastern Ukraine. Next month will be the Pitmen’s 75th anniversary and there was a procession of trophies the club have won before kickoff, but it was a chorus of boos that resonated around the stadium at the final whistle.
There were just four minutes left on the clock when up stepped Serhiy Kucherenko, a 27-year-old in his first Premier League season, to curl a superb free-kick into the top corner of Rustam Khudzhamov’s goal and bring Shakhtar’s 55-match undefeated home streak to an unexpected halt.
Lucescu was looking for a reaction from his team after that heavy defeat in Cataluña and there was added spice to Obolon’s visit after the Kyivites had beaten Shakhtar in an ill-tempered encounter last September that saw Fernandinho suffer a broken leg.
The Romanian’s player certainly didn’t act as though they were a wounded animal however.
Predictably there were changes to the starting line-up – eight, to be precise – two of them enforced with Willian and Luiz Adriano suspended, and this was by no means a Shakhtar side at full strength. That’s not to take anything away from Serhiy Kovalets’ team though.
There was the usual blend of youth and experience, plus three Brazilians occupying attacking positions; four, if you include Eduardo.
The former Arsenal striker saw a header saved by the visitors’ goalkeeper Oleksandr Rybka after running unmarked from deep and Jadson hit a post with an effort from outside the box, but they didn’t dominate the game like they are used to at the Donbass Arena, even after the introduction of Darijo Srna and Henrikh Mkhitaryan at the interval.
Obolon also played a third of the match with 10 men after Vadym Panas was shown a second yellow for playing on after the referee’s whistle had gone when he was incorrectly flagged offside in the 63rd minute.
An ankle injury forced Rybka off too, giving 21-year-old Ihor Berezovsky a debut in goal for Obolon, but Shakhtar couldn’t score, despite a mountain of injury time pulled from somewhere and they were condemned to a first defeat at the Donbass Arena, and the first in Donetsk since Sporting Lisbon’s 1-0 victory on 22 October 2008.
"The Brazilians displayed probably their poorest performance during their spell at Shakhtar," said Lucescu afterwards.
"Obolon deserved this victory. They were fighting from beginning to end. For Douglas [Costa] and [Alex] Teixeira this should be an example. Anyone who considers the Ukrainian championship easy is profoundly mistaken. This is a very tough championship where you have to show not only your technical abilities, but also fighting qualities."
In many respects, these two clubs are worlds apart.
Shakhtar have a big budget, a world-class training base, an ultramodern stadium that will host Euro 2012 matches and a multinational squad fit to grace it.
While Obolon, founded in 1992, have a stadium of just 5,100 in a residential area of northern Kyiv that will be used as a training base for next summer’s European Championships and they don’t have a single foreign player at the club. Obolon also have one of the Premier League’s smallest budgets.
But Kovalets’ players are a highly-motivated bunch, especially when it comes to facing the big sides. They are eighth in the 16-team league with 30 points; six of them taken from Shakhtar, four off their city rivals Dynamo Kyiv.
It was an opportune time for Obolon to be facing Shakhtar, who've struggled somewhat domestically after they’ve played in Europe and there would have been something resembling a title race had Dynamo been able to capitalise on their slip-ups.
Shakhtar made hard work of beating a relegation-threatened Sevastopol 1-0 between the two legs of their clash with Roma in the Champions League last month and lost by the same scoreline to Karpaty Lviv in Halychyna afterwards.
But Yuri Semin’s side were beaten by Juande Ramos’ Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk the week after Shakhtar’s loss in Lviv and suffered a European hangover of their own yesterday with a 1-1 draw away to the league’s bottom side Metalurh Zaporizhya.
Had they won both of them, Dynamo would have been six points behind Shakhtar with Lucescu’s team due to visit the Valeriy Lobanovskiy Dynamo Stadium later this month.
The 11-point gap between the two looks insurmountable now with six matches remaining, even if Shakhtar don’t have the easiest of run-ins; it doesn’t appear as though they’ll have the Champions League as a distraction after Barcelona’s visit to Ukraine this week either.
To cap a miserable few days for Lucescu, centre-back Dmytro Chygrynskiy’s injury was worse than initially expected and club captain Srna pulled up with a thigh strain not long after being introduced as a substitute on Saturday afternoon.
RESULTS Fri 8 Zorya Luhansk 0-2 Metalist Kharkiv; Sat 9 Sevastopol 4-1 Volyn Lutsk, Shakhtar Donetsk 0-1 Obolon Kyiv, Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk 2-0 Vorskla Poltava, Arsenal Kyiv 1-2 Tavriya Simferopol; Sun 10 Metalurh Zaporizhya 1-1 Dynamo Kyiv, Karpaty Lviv 3-1 Illychivets Mariupil, Kryvbas Kryvyi Rih 1-0 Metalurh Donetsk.
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