Shakhtar ready for Russian rivals

It will be Russia against Ukraine as FC Lokomotiv Moskva take on FC Shakhtar Donetsk.

By Igor Linnyk

FC Shakhtar Donetsk's UEFA Champions League third qualifying round tie against FC Lokomotiv Moskva will revive the cross-border footballing rivalry between Russia and Ukraine.

Well matched
When the Ukrainian league runners-up take on the Russian champions in Wednesday's first leg in Donetsk, there will be little to separate the sides in terms of quality. "Both teams are of nearly the same standard," said Lokomotiv coach Yuri Semin, and his opposite number Bernd Schuster had no reason to disagree.

Shared history
However, with the two countries bound together by years of shared history - first as part of the Russian empire and then the Soviet Union - passion as much as playing prowess looks likely to settle the tie.

Moscow strength
Back in the days of the Russian empire, sides from Odessa and Kharkhov in Ukraine provided the stiffest challenge for the Russian giants of Moscow and St. Petersburg, but with the coming of the Soviet Union, the Russian capital took control.

Capital power
After the introduction of the first Soviet championship in 1936, the big Moscow clubs - Lokomotiv, FC Spartak Moskva, PFC CSKA Moskva, FC Dinamo Moskva and FC Torpedo Moskva - dominated. Ukraine was almost a backwater. When Lokomotiv won the first Soviet Cup in 1936, Shakhtar - then known as Ugolschiki ('coal miners') - had only just been formed.

Ukrainian challenge
It was not until the 1960s that FC Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar began to shine in the Soviet league, with FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk joining them as a force in the 1980s, but from then until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, clubs from Russia and Ukraine were constantly battling for honours.

Flying the flag
The rivalry survived the demise of the Soviet Union. Lokomotiv disposed of Ukrainians FC CSCA Kyiv - now FC Arsenal Kyiv - on the way to the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup semi-finals in 1998/99 while Shakhtar lost 4-1 to Russia's SC Rotor Volgograd in the 1996 UEFA Intertoto Cup.

Major meetings
However, Ukrainian clubs have tended to prosper in major meetings. Dynamo came from two goals behind to beat Spartak 3-2 in the 1994/95 Champions League and the Ukrainian national team inflicted a humbling 3-2 home defeat on Russia, before drawing 1-1 away, in the EURO 2000™ qualifying campaign.

Five in five
Shakhtar have made a flying start to the new Ukrainian season with five wins in as many games, and summer signing, Croatian international goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa, has conceded just one goal in seven matches, including two Champions League ties against Moldova's FC Sheriff.

Tricky season
Lokomotiv, by contrast, have had a tricky campaign, and are only now recovering from a bad start to begin to compete for a place in the top three in Russia. However, Shakhtar have taken no delight in their opponents' misery.

Impossible dream
"I like Yuri Semin's side very much and last season in the Champions League I followed them," said Shakhtar president Rinat Akhmetov. "But now I can't wish them luck. It would have been great if both clubs could have made it to the group stage, but unfortunately it's impossible."

European priority
The rivalry between the two countries may be alive and kicking, but with a place in the Champions League group stage at stake, supporters of both clubs will put European success above any neighbourly squabble.

'That is enough'
"I know that games between Russian and Ukrainian sides are always something special, but I have not been filling my head with such thoughts," said Pletikosa. "The reward for a win is a Champions League berth, and that is enough for me."