Champions Matchday looks back at Valeriy Lobanovskiy's great team of the late 1990s and wonders why FC Dynamo Kyiv failed to win the UEFA Champions League.
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By 1999, Valeriy Lobanovskiy had been coaching for 30 years. He had won two European Cup Winners' Cups, eight Soviet league titles, six Soviet Cups, two Ukrainian league titles and a Ukrainian Cup. More than that, he had defined the Soviet style of play. But this gifted coach had never won the European Champion Clubs' Cup.
As the Soviet Union broke up, it seemed his chance had gone. Lobanovskiy was nearly 60, he was not in the best of health, and his two great FC Dynamo Kyiv teams were in the past. His Soviet Union side had reached the final of EURO '88, their 2-0 victory against Italy in the semi-final being almost as influential as Arrigo Sacchi in persuading the Italian game of the value of pressing. But at the 1990 FIFA World Cup they were eliminated in the group stage. Lobanovskiy seemed spent. Under fire from critics, he left for the UAE and then Kuwait. But in 1996 he was persuaded to return to Kyiv.
Genius for evolving
Lobanovskiy joined a club that, after the Soviet Union's demise, had been left as the biggest by far in Ukraine. Although SC Tavriya Simferopol had taken the first post-Soviet Ukrainian title, Dynamo had won the next four. Lobanovskiy's brief was to bring European progress.
"We were fortunate that three things came together," said Serhiy Polkhovskiy, a vice-president of Dynamo in the late 1990s. "We had the generation of Andriy Shevchenko, Oleh Luzhny and Serhiy Rebrov, we had rich investors, and we were able to persuade Lobanovskiy to come back."
For 30 years, Lobanovskiy had dominated Soviet and Ukrainian football. From the mid-1970s onwards, his hard-pressing style became the Soviet one. But he did not just keep doing the same thing; his genius was that he kept evolving, changing as the game changed.
Despite his impressive record and the fact that he had a young and talented team at his disposal, there were still some who thought that, at nearly 60, Lobanovskiy's stern, authoritarian style of coaching might be out of date in the post-Soviet era. "He was like Kaa from the Jungle Book," said Polkhovskiy. "You never knew what he was thinking, and he was always ready to pounce."
Bolstered by his statistics, Lobanovskiy was notoriously dogmatic. "When I was a player it was difficult to evaluate players," he said once, defining his approach. "The coach could say a player wasn't in the right place at the right moment, and the player could simply disagree. There were no real methods of analysis, but today the players cannot object. They know that the morning after the game a sheet of paper will be pinned up showing all the figures characterising their play. If a midfielder has fulfilled 60 technical and tactical actions in the match, then he has not pulled his weight. He is obliged to do 100 or more."
Inevitably his attitude led to conflict. Olexandr Khapsalis, who played for Dynamo in the late 1970s and early 1980s, recalled how Lobanovskiy would shout down any perceived criticism. "It was better not to joke with him," Khapsalis said. "If he gave an instruction, and the player said: 'But I think … ’'Lobanovskiy would look at him and scream: 'Don't think! I do the thinking for you. Play!'"
The distance between Lobanovskiy and his players grew. "He had internal torments," Polkhovskiy said. "Previously a word, a glance was enough to assert his authority and explain what he wanted. Now players have a greater freedom and an individuality. They become stars and so they do not put the team first."
The side of Shevchenko and Rebrov remained just biddable enough, but Dynamo's return to European competition in 1996/97 could hardly have gone any worse. They were beaten 6-2 on aggregate by SK Rapid Wien in the qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League, and then lost to Neuchâtel Xamax FC in the first round of the UEFA Cup. The following season, though, they made a real impression.
After defeating Barry Town AFC and Brøndby IF in qualifying, Dynamo reached the group stage. The Rebrov-Shevchenko partnership up front was simply devastating, never more so than in the two matches against FC Barcelona. Dynamo, having won 3-0 at home, went to Camp Nou and won 4-0, with Shevchenko scoring a first-half hat-trick.
This was fluent, quick, modern football, but in the quarter-final Dynamo met another side bristling with pace and muscularity on the break: Juventus. Dynamo took the lead in Turin in the first leg and ended up drawing 1-1, but they were picked off at the Olimpiyskiy, Filippo Inzaghi scoring a hat-trick in a 4-1 win. Dynamo's potential was obvious but their play was, at times, slightly naive.
In the first qualifying round in 1998/99, Barry again were the unfortunate victims, beaten 10-1 on aggregate, and Dynamo made it into the group stage with a shoot-out victory against AC Sparta Praha. The anxiousness in that performance carried over into the group stage. Dynamo lost away to Panathinaikos FC, drew at home against RC Lens, and needed an injury-time equaliser from Rebrov to take a point against Arsenal FC at Wembley.
Dynamo knew they had to win the return against the Gunners. "The stakes in the home match were high," said Rebrov. "In the middle of the first half I 'dragged' Martin Keown for 50m, before he brought me down in the penalty area. I didn't take the penalty well. David Seaman came close to saving the shot, but the ball somehow bounced into the net." Dynamo went on to win 3-1 and victories against Panathinaikos and Lens took them into the knockout stage.
In the quarter-final, they met the defending champions, Real Madrid CF. Rebrov flicked on a goalkeeper's clearance for Shevchenko to open the scoring in Madrid but Predrag Mijatović levelled and Dynamo returned to Kyiv for the second leg after a 1-1 draw. This time, though, their football was far more controlled.
Just after the hour, Rebrov threaded a pass between four defenders to release Shevchenko, who was tripped as he rounded Bodo Illgner but converted the rebound after the goalkeeper had saved his penalty. Shevchenko then found his partner with a brisk forward pass, running on to gather and finish after Rebrov had held the ball up superbly and dinked a chip over the defensive line. The 2-0 win took them through to a semi-final against FC Bayern München.
Dynamo quickly seized control of the first leg at home. A gloriously arced ball from Valentin Belkevich played in Shevchenko to open the scoring after 16 minutes. Two minutes before half-time, Shevchenko added a second, his free-kick from wide on the left drifting in at the back post. Bayern pulled one back before the break but the two-goal margin was restored five minutes into the second half, Vitaliy Kosovskiy volleying in after Samuel Kuffour had miscued his attempt to clear his low cross.
Kosovskiy was then sent through one-on-one against Oliver Kahn with a chance to make it 4-1. His chip beat the keeper but floated over the bar. It turned out to be a decisive miss. Stefan Effenberg pulled one back with a well-disguised free-kick with 12 minutes remaining. Lothar Matthäus cleared a header off the line but, with two minutes to go, Carsten Jancker turned on a bouncing ball in the box and forced in an unlikely equaliser. Dynamo had dominated, but ended up drawing the game 3-3. "When we were 3-1 up, we had chances to score the fourth and fifth goals," said Rebrov. "Unfortunately, we failed to convert our opportunities. At the end of the game we conceded unnecessary goals. Many years have passed but I can say that we deserved to win that Champions League."
Bayern won 1-0 in Munich and went on to lose to Manchester United FC in the final. That summer Shevchenko left for AC Milan and Rebrov went to Tottenham Hotspur FC a year later. Dynamo were never quite the same again. Lobanovskiy won a further three league titles and two cups, but on 7 May 2012 he collapsed in the dugout at FC Metalurh Zaporizhzhya, having had a stroke. He died six days later, at the age of 63, revered, but without the UEFA Champions League win so many thought he deserved.