FC Dynamo Kyiv captain Valentin Belkevich believes it is time his side reasserted their presence in the UEFA Champions League, starting with tonight's must-win game against Internazionale FC.
It is four years since Dynamo were last in the quarter-finals of the competition and five years since they reached the semi-finals. They presently lie bottom of Group B, but only two points separate them from leaders FC Lokomotiv Moskva. Victory over Inter would mean a place in the first knockout round, regardless of the result in the other match between Arsenal FC and Lokomotiv.
The fans will not understand it if we do not advance to the knockout stage," said Belkevich. "Our results in the 1990s mean that we are expected to perform on a level with the best European clubs. We've had a few seasons of failing to qualify from the group stage, and Dynamo have started to be forgotten about. So our task is to regain a leading position in the Champions League."
Belkevich, now 30, joined Dynamo in 1996 from FC Dinamo Minsk in his native Belarus. He arrived with an impressive track record, having scored 54 goals in 131 games for Dinamo, and he has not disappointed. Twice player of the year in Ukraine, his two Champions League strikes this term have taken his tally to 12 in 61 European appearances for Dynamo.
However, goals are not this playmaker's primary responsibility - his role is to supply the forwards. He has recorded two assists so far in the competition, and enjoys a good understanding with Dynamo's main striker, Maksim Shatskikh. "We've been playing together for three years now, and our understanding is quite good. Often I know where and when Max is expecting a pass."
Playing on the counter
The cautious tactics often employed by Dynamo in Europe are no hindrance. "It's easier for me to play on the counter," he said. "You get more space and a good example are Diogo Rincón's goals against Lokomotiv. Another trick is that in the Champions League, many clubs are playing with a square defence, so there's always a chance to catch them when they try the offside trap."
According to football fans in Ukraine, the Belarussian international's passes "have eyes". The media have dubbed him 'Mr Pass'. And this season he was handed the captain's armband by Dynamo coach Oleksiy Mykhaylychenko.
"That was a good moment, as it meant my team-mates have some sort of respect for me. However, it means additional responsibility on the pitch and off it. I think it has gone well so far. But one thing is missing before I can say I am happy - we need to repeat what we did in 1999, when we got to the Champions League semi-finals."
His targets are not confined to the world of football. Belkevich, a graduate of the Belarus academy of sport, is now enrolled at the institute of legal studies in Minsk, aiming to show he has a quick mind off the pitch as well as on it. "I am interested in legislation and law," he said. "This could be useful in life.
As a player, I would have liked to be like Zinedine Zidane, or even better. But you have to be realistic about yourself. I am happy with how my life is at the moment - Kyiv helped me make my name and I am happy here." He will be happier still if they get the result they need tonight.
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