Unravelling the enigma of football in the post-Soviet republics
It was a grudge match between two old foes who dominate the league. It featured a wonderful goal from a Ballon d’Or winner. It was an ill-tempered affair at times. It saw a wily manager red carded. It had oodles of controversy.
Dynamo Kyiv’s 3-0 win over Shakhtar Donetsk had much in common with last week’s El Clasico, then, save for the excessive histrionics.
By the time the winter break came about Mircea Lucescu’s side had established a 12-point lead over Dynamo, so there was a sense of it being when, not if, Shakhtar would win their sixth Premier League title in Ukraine as we reached the business end of the season.
‘When’ could have been Sunday.
Shakhtar needed only a point at the Valeriy Lobanovskiy Stadium for Dynamo to suffer the ignominy of seeing their archrivals win the championship on their turf.
In the first half of the season Dynamo stuttered under the stewardship of Russian coach Valeriy Gazzaev, with the team seemingly lacking cohesion as a unit. At the second attempt his resignation was accepted, after defeat to Moldova’s Sheriff Tiraspol in the Europa League group stages last September.
Much credit should be given to Oleh Luzhny, who steadied the ship as interim manager, guiding Dynamo out of the Europa League group stages. Then Yuri Semin returned to take charge of the club he left in 2009 for another of his former sides, Lokomotiv Moscow.
The 63-year-old’s tenure began successfully and Shakhtar have struggled to adapt with the transition between Champions League football and domestic affairs in the new year, yet that huge gap between the two remained more or less intact as the season wore on.
Had Dynamo capitalised on Shakhtar’s dropped points, we could have had something resembling a title race.
The defeat in Kyiv on Sunday means Darijo Srna will most probably lift the trophy in front of Shakhtar’s fans in another derby this coming Saturday, when Metalurh Donetsk visit the Donbass Arena.
Things started badly for Shakhtar, as Oleh Gusev converted a dubiously awarded first-half penalty to give Dynamo the lead. Srna was adjudged to have fouled Andriy Shevchenko, a decision the Croatian later said "ruined" the game.
But controversy raged even before a ball had been kicked, which is to be expected given that Ukrainian football politics is something of a minefield.
The rivalry between clubs’ wealthy owners came to the fore again last week when Dynamo ramped up ticket prices ahead of Shakhtar’s visit, irking them somewhat, who subsequently reimbursed their travelling fans the 50 per cent difference.
In 2009 Shakhtar’s president Rinat Akhmetov clashed with the Football Federation of Ukraine’s head, Hryhory Surkis, who happens to be brother to Dynamo’s chairman, Ihor Surkis. The attack was over a similar issue surrounding the cost of watching the national team’s World Cup play-off against Greece at the Donbass Arena.
"Unfortunately, your mind and conscience are guided by the opportunity of earning $4.6 million. To my great sorrow, you are not bothered about whether the Donbass Arena will be full or not on November 18," said Akhmetov on Shakhtar’s website.
Reduced tickets were made available for his club’s fans, something the FFU’s press service dismissed as a "cheap propaganda trick". Shakhtar were missing Dmytro Chygrynskiy, Jadson and Luiz Adriano at the weekend, but improved after going behind to a Dynamo side who have seen that ‘new manager bounce’ come to an end in recent matches.
Dynamo overcame Besiktas and Manchester City in the Europa League and domestically there was a marked improvement, but a lot of the good work he achieved in his first spell at the club was undone by Gazzaev. There is a rebuilding job to be done, even if the league table shows they’ve only conceded four more goals than Shakhtar and have scored one more.
Their former midfielder Oleksandr Aliyev has followed Semin back from Lokomotiv and will prove to be a good piece of business, while the Russian has spoken of bringing in a forward in the mould of Edin Dûeko to bolster the front line.
But it was the veteran striker Andriy Shevchenko who doubled their advantage against Shakhtar, after his partner Artem Milevskiy capitalised on Mykola Ishchenko’s error to feed the 2004 Ballon d’Or winner on the edge of the box, who sent a delightful chip over Andriy Pyatov.
Moments earlier Shakhtar had nearly pulled level when Oleksandr Shovkovskiy pulled off a superb reaction save from Eduardo, and Razvan Rat also struck the crossbar.
It got worse for the visitors, though.
Referee Yuriy Mozharovskiy showed Lucescu a red card after he and his assistant Alexandru Spiridon were involved in a heated debate with the fourth official. The Romanian had to watch the remainder of the game from the tunnel, and refused to participate in the post-match press conference.
"Since I was sent off there is no point in making any comments about the match," was all the 65-year-old would say afterwards.
Gusev sealed the three points with a late flick after Yaroslav Rakitskiy lost the ball on left, which should ensure Dynamo claim the second place they need to play Champions League football next season. It’s not often you see an airkick and a backheel in highlights of one goal.
Metalist Kharkiv have been snapping at Dynamo’s heels throughout the campaign and their battle has been with Myron Markevich’s side for second, rather than with Shakhtar for first, who are eight points clear of Dynamo with three rounds remaining.
It means their only realistic chance of picking up any silverware this season is in the Ukrainian Cup, hardly a competition the big clubs care for too much.
Still, a trophy is a trophy, and if they beat Arsenal Kyiv in the semi-final next week they’ll face either Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, managed by one Juande Ramos, eager to win something in his first season in Ukraine, or set up another juicy fixture against Shakhtar.
The nucleus of a good side is there for Semin and with a couple of additions in the summer they should push Shakhtar far harder next season.
RESULTS Fri 29 Tavriya Simferopol 0-0 Volyn Lutsk; Sat 30 Metalurh
Donetsk 1-5 Arsenal Kyiv; Metalist Kharkiv 1-1 Karpaty Lviv; Obolon
Kyiv 2-0 Illychivets Mariupil; Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk 3-0 Metalurh
Zaporizhya; Sun 1 Kryvbas Kryvyi Rih 3-1 Sevastopol; Vorskla Poltava
1-0 Zorya Luhansk; Dynamo Kyiv 3-0 Shakhtar Donetsk
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