Eastern European clubs have long suffered with the seasons, but the prospect of an all-Ukrainian semi-final looms, The Guardian reported.
Two of the past four Uefa Cups have been won by Russian sides, a country which also impressed in reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2008. Vladimir Putin has spoken of football`s part in a "golden age of Russian sport". Ukraine reached the last eight of the last World Cup and, before the disappointment at Wembley, had climbed to No14 in the world rankings. And two Ukrainian sides – Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk – hold the marginal advantage heading into the second leg of tonight`s Uefa Cup quarter-finals.
The obvious conclusion in that the east is rising. And yet, a quick quiz question: who were the last eastern European side to make it through the group stage of the Champions League? A double vodka and extra helpings of borscht to anybody who correctly answered Lokomotiv Moscow in 2003–04.
There are those who would argue that the Uefa Cup is devalued to the point of worthlessness these days, and that success in that is the equivalent of being the tallest man in Lilliput. Which is fair enough, up to a point. But look at the teams Zenit St Petersburg beat on their way to their triumph last season: Villarreal, Marseille, Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich and Rangers. If a Russian club can beat such a succession of major teams, is it not strange that no post-Soviet side has managed to bumble through the group stages of the Champions League for five years?
The answer, perhaps, lies in the rhythm of the seasons. In Russia, the league runs from March to November. Ukraine has tried to fall in line with western Europe, but the climate makes their system an unwieldy compromise. Last season started on 25 July and ended on 13 June, with a winter break that ran from 18 November to 3 April. Factor in pre-season training and the result is that in both countries, by the time the Champions League group stages come around, their players have been playing solidly for the best part of six months, and fatigue, physical and mental, is beginning to set in.
Look at the times of the seven goals Shakhtar conceded in their group games this season: 90, 87, 90, 76, 73, 59, 83. Or the four that Dynamo conceded: 88, 69, 90, 87. Of 11 goals let in, not a single one came before the 59th minute and six came in the final five minutes of games. That is a pattern that is surely best explained by exhaustion.
Come the spring, of course, and the knockout stage of either Champions League or Uefa Cup, those same teams are fresh. If a Russian or Ukraine side did make it through to the last 16 of the Champions League, there is no reason why they could not make things awkward for the more established sides. In the lesser competition, in which they have progressed despite the calendar, Russian sides have taken advantage, and Ukrainian sides may do so this season.
The case of Zenit is slightly different, and demonstrates why Ukraine have moved as near as they can to a western European model. They won the Russian league in November 2007; it was 10 months before that side played a Champions League game. As countless teams have discovered, it is hard to maintain hunger in a second season. Zenit`s league form suffered, not least because they spent the spring so focused on the Uefa Cup, and morale and confidence began to ebb. A number of their players were part of Russia`s Euro 2008 squad, which made things worse, sapping at their emotional and physical energy. Andrey Arshavin, and perhaps others, were distracted by talk of a move abroad. By the time the Champions League began, Zenit were a greatly diminished force.
So what, then, of the two Ukrainian sides? Shakhtar, after a dreadful start to the season, have improved significantly, and a 2–0 home win in the first leg should be enough to see them through against Marseille, particularly given both sides seemed most threatening on the counter. The French league leaders, presumably, will take the initiative which, on the evidence of a week ago, is likely to render them vulnerable to the pace and imagination of the Brazilian trio of Adriano, Ilsinho and Jadson.
Dynamo, meanwhile, having held Paris St-Germain to a 0-0 draw in France, have a first European semi-final in 10 years in their sights, even if midfielder Artem Milevskiy was downbeat about the outcome of first leg. "We weren`t that happy," he said, "because we cannot concede goals so we can`t concentrate all of our energy on the attack."
Aside from Porto`s slightly fortuitous 2–1 victory in the Champions League, though, Dynamo are unbeaten at home since 2 August. Milevskiy became isolated at times in the first leg, but the return from injury of Artem Kravets should allow Milevskiy to return to his slightly deeper role with Oleksandr Aliev taking on a more orthodox play-making role.
English fans may have rather wearied at regular all-Premier League clashes in the Champions League (although maybe not after Tuesday night), but if they do both progress, an all-Ukrainian semi-final would be a tremendous occasion; and proof that, when the seasons are favourably aligned, the eastern resurgence is still very much alive.