By Igor Linnyk
While FC Dynamo Kyiv have long starred on the European stage, their main Ukrainian rivals FC Shakhtar Donetsk are yet to make their mark in European competition.
However, that has not been for a lack of effort. Owner Rinat Akhmetov has invested vast sums in the club, allowing them to wrest the domestic crown from Dynamo in 2001/02 and start this season with ten wins from ten games, but exiting from the UEFA Champions League in the third qualifying round and then losing their first UEFA Cup match 2-0 has been typical of their European form in recent years.
There was plenty of confidence in Bernd Schuster's side this summer as they strolled past Moldovan title-holders FC Sheriff in the Champions League second qualifying round and put themselves on course for the group stage with a 1-0 home victory against FC Lokomotiv Moskva.
But the Russian champions came back in the second leg to progress 3-2 on aggregate, sending Shakhtar into the UEFA Cup. However last week they lost 2-0 to FC Dinamo Bucuresti in the first leg of their first-round tie to leave them with an uphill task to progress.
UEFA Cup Winners' Cup quarter-finalists in 1983/84, their Champions League bow 17 seasons later was, in fact, a proud one. Eliminating FC Levadia Maardu and SK Slavia Praha - the latter in extra time - Shakhtar reached the first group stage. Once there they lost their first three games to S.S. Lazio, Arsenal FC and AC Sparta Praha, but they then won the return against the Czech team and ended with a 3-0 victory against the Londoners, finishing the group in third. Ominously, though, RC Celta de Vigo immediately ended their UEFA Cup campaign.
In 2001/02, with Viktor Prokopenko in charge, a Shakhtar side starting to overhaul Dynamo on the domestic stage lost to BV Borussia Dortmund 5-1 on aggregate in the Champions League third qualifying round. This painful defeat was supplemented by an early UEFA Cup exit at the hands of PFC CSKA Sofia.
Next year, having finally wrested the Ukrainian title from Dynamo, new coach Nevio Scala was on the crest of a wave. Certainly, the Italian coach fancied his team to edge past Club Brugge KV into the Champions League first group stage. However, the Ukrainians suffered yet another bitter defeat, this time on penalties. FK Austria Wien then stormed to a 5-2 UEFA Cup aggregate success, which effectively spelt the end of Scala's career in Ukraine.
Hint of disaster
However, Akhmetov's ambition did not fade, and Schuster, who took charge of the side in 2003/04, was tipped to succeed not only in Ukraine, but also in Europe. But where domestically Donetsk are flawless so far, there is a hint of yet another European disaster on the horizon.
The second leg against Dinamo on 15 October is judgement day for the coach and his players. Schuster is upbeat, though, saying: "We made two mistakes in Romania, on 88 and 90 minutes. But at home we can beat them with the score we need."
Finishing might be the key for the club, who created more chances than both Lokomotiv and Dinamo in their ties, while an important rehearsal comes on Sunday, when they travel to meet Dynamo knowing an away win would make them overwhelming favourites to regain the league title. Perhaps a domestic match, albeit against a side with wide European experience, will be the acid test of their continental credentials.
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