Unravelling the enigma of football in the post-Soviet republics
The most eyebrow-raising midweek result was Metalist Kharkiv's dismantling of Red Bull Salzburg. Eastern Europe expert Mark Gilbey introduces the Ukrainian upstarts with a long history
It’s usually after the interval when Metalist Kharkiv have done the damage to their opponents in the Europa League this season. Ten of the Yellow-Blues’ 15 group-stage goals came during the second half of matches.
However, in Austria they put three past a stunned Red Bull Salzburg in the opening 45 minutes to all but end this last-32 tie. Ukraine’s last representatives on the European stage now seem certain of progressing to the next round.
Metalist opened the scoring after just 20 seconds when the lively Taison capitalised on a defensive mix-up and rounded goalkeeper Alexander Walke to slot the ball into the net with minimal fuss.
The gifted Brazilian put in a man-of-the-match performance last night. Taison epitomised the exciting, slick attacking brand of football Metalist are playing right now and he had a hand in both of Jonathan Cristaldo’s goals. Substitute Marko Dević completed the rout in injury time with a neat finish.
The hills are alive with the sound of Metalist celebrating
What little attention Ukrainian football receives in the UK centres chiefly around Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv, but below the “big two” Metalist have made healthy inroads over the last few years in establishing themselves as a genuine third force.
The bronze medal has been theirs for five seasons on the trot now, and considering they command a 14-point lead over Juande Ramos’ Dnipropetrovsk with just 10 games remaining, that will surely be the minimum Metalist achieve in this campaign too. Four points separate them and second-placed Shakhtar, whom Metalist beat 2-1 at the Donbass Arena in October.
Progress domestically has been mirrored on the continent and this is the third time in four years that the Metalworkers, as the club’s name translates in English, have reached the knockout stages of the Europa League.
They're unbeaten in nine European matches now and in three of those Metalist have scored four times. Four more in Austria brought their total to 19 Europa League goals this season, meaning Metalist are the highest-scoring side in the competition.
Hailing from Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv, in the north-east of the country just a few miles from the Russian border, Metalist are one of the league’s oldest teams – but success only really arrived after Oleksandr Yaroslavsky assumed the presidency in 2006; during the Soviet era their only success was a domestic cup in 1988.
Policeman-turned-businessman Yaroslavsky is a dollar billionaire who has invested a tidy sum in his hometown club over the past six years. Metalist’s 41,000-capacity stadium will also host Euro 2012 games this summer. The Metalist Arena – known locally as the Spider Arena on account of its unique roof support structure – was renovated and reopened in time for Yaroslavsky’s 50th birthday in 2009; it was an event attended by Ukraine’s president and prime minister.
The other key figure central to Metalist’s success is their manager, Myron Markevych. He has spent time shadowing Fabio Capello, Carlo Ancelotti and Christophe Daum and their expertise has clearly rubbed off on him. An erudite and intelligent man fluent in several languages, Markevych is arguably the best Ukrainian coach around at the moment with over 500 Premier League matches under his belt.
The 61-year-old has Metalist playing an aesthetically pleasing, fluid style of football with more than a hint of South American flair to it, much like Shakhtar. Five Argentinians started the match in Austria with another on the bench, while Metalist also have a quintet of Brazilians on their books.
Markevych: acquisitionally open-minded
Mircea Lucescu’s transfer policy at Shakhtar is focused solely upon creative, young attacking types, but Markevych doesn’t impose such limits on himself and Argentinian centre-back Marco Torsiglieri has been an authoritative figure for Metalist this season.
One of the questions many fans were wondering was how Metalist would cope with the loss of key midfielder Denys Oliynyk (there were rumours the Ukrainian international wanted financial parity with the club’s South American contingent), who became one of Ramos’ expensive recruits at Dnipro – but José Ernesto Sosa has excelled and Cleiton Xavier looks another shrewd acquisition.
To fend off interest from Santos, the Brazilian was handed a new contract and the captain’s armband. The 28-year-old is one of the best attacking midfielders in the Premier League and his loss would have represented a serious blow.
Captain Cleiton, the Brazilian boss
This focus on South America means one criticism often levelled at Metalist is just how un-Ukrainian they are. There was speculation ahead of yesterday’s game that Markevych was going to field a team with no ethnic Ukrainians in the starting XI at all.
Premier League rules state that clubs must start with no more than seven foreign players, but three of Metalist’s Ukrainians have been naturalised and in the past when Markevych coached the national team, and the word was that Senegalese defender Papa Gueye would also be changing citizenship.
As it was, Markevych picked one Ukrainian, Kharkiv-born goalkeeper Oleksandr Goryainov, and there were another couple on the bench. He cited a lack of domestic options when recently quizzed about the subject, but for now the talk isn't of nationalities, but of trophies.
A genuine three-horse race picks up again soon when the Premier League emerges from its winter break and in Europe their adventure looks set to continue as well. It remains to be seen whether they have the ability to juggle both, but this could be a very exciting conclusion to the season for Metalist.
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