Unravelling the enigma of football in the post-Soviet republics
In some respects this evening is the beginning of a new era for Metalist Kharkiv. Little may have outwardly changed since the Europa League draw was made back in December, but the Ukrainians' match against Newcastle United will be their first competitive fixture since the club changed owners last month. Quite what this means at the moment remains unclear.
Serhiy Kurchenko, the new president, is certainly talking the talk. “I don't want to look at Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv's back; I don't want to celebrate the bronze medal and the Ukrainian Cup every year,” he said of his aspirations for club. “I want to hear the anthem of the Champions League at our stadium. Our goal is to win the championship's gold within three years and to bring a European trophy to Kharkiv within five years."
Certainly Zhovto-syni (the Yellow-Blues) were heading in the right direction under Kurchenko’s predecessor, Oleksandr Yaroslavsky. Six consecutive third-place finishes are testament to that, not to mention twice reaching the knockout stages of the Europa League. This season Myron Markevych’s side are fourth, albeit just two points behind Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in second.
They also topped their Europa League group once again, conceding just three goals in six matches. Metalist are one of the few teams to have beaten Shakhtar at the Donbass Arena, they also won 3-1 away to Dynamo this season.
Metalist's foreign legion (and Kharkiv-born keeper Goryainov) vs Leverkusen
Numerous factors have contributed to Metalist’s success, Yaroslavsky’s financial backing being one of them. Markevych, like his Newcastle counterpart Alan Pardew, has been busy assembling a foreign legion, and it's already reaping dividends. Although rather than France, the 62-year-old is tapping into the South American market. Metalist have half a dozen Argentineans, plus five Brazilians - six if you include midfielder Edmar, a naturalised Ukrainian who arrived in the country during the 2002/03 season.
But a Ukrainian passport is a valuable commodity these days, what with the Ukrainian Premier League’s limit on foreign players, or “legionnaires”. Clubs must field a minimum of four Ukrainians. It's a problem for many sides, but seems to be felt more acutely by Metalist. Edmar isn't their only naturalised player; Serbian-born goalkeeper Vladimir Dišljenković also has a Ukrainian passport, as did Marko Dević, a striker who has since joined Shakhtar. Managers almost have to juggle their sides and find the right combination. Fortunately for Metalist, this isn't a problem that Markevych has to worry about in Europe and he is able to pick as many South Americans as he wants, not a team that must comply with a quota.
This is a real impediment to Metalist domestically. A lack of local players has also provoked criticism from some fans. “In Ukraine there are almost no young players,” Markevych once said. “We’re ready to buy any such player, but there aren’t any. And when there are in some teams, they are not for sale.” It is a problem that goes back to the collapse of the Soviet Union when there was little money to finance sport programs. The shortfall was made up by foreign players and only in recent years has this been rectified.
In the transfer window – which is still open for Ukrainian clubs – Metalist have lost their best player, Taison, who joined Shakhtar for €15 million. Cleiton Xavier and captain José Sosa are the team’s leaders now. The only arrivals have been Jajá, a Brazilian forward back for a second spell with the club where he scored 30 goals in 61 matches; goalkeeper Bohdan Shust from Shakhtar and Vorskla Poltava’s defensive midfielder Oleh Krasnoperov.
Taison left Kharkiv for Donetsk in the January transfer window
It is probably the hardest part of Markevych’s job. He is currently the best Ukrainian manager; an experienced coach who is also erudite and artistic, as reflected in his side’s football, and few would disagree Metalist are one of the most entertaining and attacking teams in Ukraine. Markevych prefers a 4-2-3-1 formation and looks to hit the opposition quickly on the break. Taison, with his pace and dribbling was a key figure on the left, but he tended to drift inside which would leave space for the fullback Fininho to exploit. Likewise, Marlos on the opposite flank compliments right-back Christian Villagra’s forward runs.
The centre of the defence, with Papa Gueye and Marco Torsiglieri, is solid enough. Goals at the other end generally haven’t been a problem either, only Shakhtar have scored more than Metalist domestically. Striker Jonathan Cristaldo has scored 11 goals and behind him in the central support role is Cleiton Xavier orchestrating the attack. Aside from netting 12 times himself, he and the roaming wide players have provided the bulk of assists this season.
One possible concern for Markevych may be fitness. Ukrainian football went on its winter break in December and doesn’t return until March. Yet this period isn't treated as the chance for a prolonged rest like the summer. Aside from the 1-1 draw with Whitley Bay that helped Metalist acclimatise to the North East of England, the club have been away at various training camps in sunnier climes involving several exhibition matches that saw them beat the likes of Shakhtar and CSKA Moscow.
Both will see the tie as winnable. Metalist don’t have a game this weekend, but then neither do Newcastle, so Pardew has the opportunity to field a full-strength side this evening. That’s probably just as well. He won’t relish a 3,200-mile roundtrip for the second leg just a few days before a crucial Premier League game against an improving Southampton.
Probable Metalist XI: Olexandr Goryainov; Cristian Villagra, Papa Gueye, Marco Torsiglieri, Fininho; Edmar, Chaco Torres, Marlos, Cleiton Xavier, José Sosa; Jonathan Cristaldo.
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