Even at the height of summer, no-one ever goes to Kharkiv for the scenery. Cossack outpost-cum-provincial Russian town-cum-Soviet centre of science, Ukraine’s second city – forty kilometres south of Russia but almost five hundred east of Kiev – was the inaugural capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the birthplace of the T-34 tank and the spot where the atom was split for the first time outside the USA. Its strategic industries also made it one of the most fiercely contested battlegrounds of the Second World War: by the time the Red Army and the Wermacht had finished their extirpative to and fro in August 1943 seventy percent of the city’s buildings were nothing more than rubble.
Hardened by Stalin’s forced collectivisation and a devastating pre-war famine, the city was soon back on its feet, the millionth tractor rolling off the production lines at the famed Kharkiv Tractor Factory one year before Newcastle United made their first venture into Europe by virtue of a midtable finish and the one-city-one-club rule. While Kharkiv remained a giant of Soviet industry, its biggest football team was a resolutely middling affair. Metalist spent only four seasons in the Soviet Top League prior to 1981, and their USSR Cup win over Torpedo Moscow seven years later remains the club’s only major honour to date.
Independence brought a downturn in fortunes both on and off the pitch. “Kharkov was freezing,” the novelist Andrey Kurkov wrote in 1996. “The buildings loomed grey over the pavement. Everyone was in a hurry, as if afraid of finding their block on the verge of collapsing or shedding its balconies.” Metalist, relegated from the top-flight in 1994 and 2003, had achieved nothing of note besides an appearance in the final of the 1992 Ukrainian Cup when Oleksandr Yaroslavsky arrived in 2004. Persuaded to invest in football by Donetsk owner Rinat Akhmetov, Yaroslavsky took a Shakhtar-lite approach to building his team, pumping $500 million into the club and signing up a phalanx of Balkan and South American talent. Marko Dević, a naturalised Serbian, formed a tripartite goal threat with the Argentinean internationals Jonathan Cristaldo and Sebastian Blanco. Fininho, Jaja, Taison, Marlos, Cleiton Xavier and Wilian Gomes came from Brazil, while four more Argentines, the defenders Christian Villagra and Marco Torsiglieri, holding midfielder Chaco Torres and skipper Jose Ernesto Sosa, capped 18 times for his country and once of Napoli and Bayern Munich, Senagalese centre-back Papa Gueye and the Serbian Milan Obradović would eventually form the core of a side which has finished third behind Shakhtar and Dynamo Kiev in each of the past six seasons, and smashed Red Bull Salzburg 8-1 on aggregate en route to the quarter-final of last year’s Europa League.
Since then Kharkiv have lost Dević and Taison to Shakhtar for a combined £17 million, and Yaroslavsky to a spat with the city council over ownership of the 40,000-capacity Metalist Stadium, which was expensively redeveloped in time for Euro 2012. “I invested not only money, but also a part of my heart and soul,” Yaroslavsky said in a Christmas Eve statement which blamed the “incomprehensible grievances” of the local authorities. For his part, Mayor Hennadiy Kernes suggested a more probable cause was “money, financial gains and the unclear situation with fixed matches,” referring to a 4-0 win over Karpaty Lviv in 2007-08 which is still being investigated by the CAS in Lausanne. The new owner, Gas Ukraine executive Serhiy Kurchenko, has promised “the title within three years and a European trophy within five” and is already negotiating to buy out the city’s stake in the stadium. New supporter initiatives include paying for 500 fans to attend the first-leg at St James’ Park, while Ukraine internationals Oleg Krasnoperov (ineligible for the EL), a midfielder formerly with Vorskla Poltava, and Bogdan Shust, back-up goalkeeper as Shakhtar won three titles and the UEFA Cup between 2005 and 2009, have been added to a squad which is currently fourth in the domestic league, just two points behind second-placed Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk.
Although Taison was arguably the pick of Metalist’s South American contingent, his replacement, Jaja, scored thirty goals in sixty-one appearances in his previous stint at the club, including this strike (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IxR3NyI3NgY) against Besiktas in the 2008-09 UEFA Cup. Coach since 2005, Myron Markevich briefly took the helm of the national side in 2010 and favours a fluid, attacking style of football which has seen his side average almost two goals a game in their eighteen league matches this season. In Kharkiv, Markevich’s preferred shape is likely to be 4-3-3 with any two of Marlos, Willian Gomes and Jaja regularly interchanging positions with Cristaldo, top-scorer this season with 12 goals, Cleiton Xavier playing the Cabaye role, Sosa the pivot in midfield and Edmar, Brazilian born but naturalised Ukrainian, moving somewhere between the two. 37-year-old Oleksandr Goryainov will almost certainly start in goal, behind a back four which has latterly consisted of Gueye alongside either Torsiglieri or Andriy Berezovchuk, with Villagra at right back and Fininho or Sergiy Pshenychnykh on the left. Essentially, it’s a Latin American team in eastern Ukraine playing a Gallic one from north-east England. For the first leg, Oleg Shelayev might be drafted in to combat Tiote and/or Sissoko, though Markevich does have form for dispensing with a midfield anchor altogether.
Before their spate of January signings, Newcastle would have most likely been picked apart in midfield and out-manoeuvred in defence. Now, with Metalist hampered by the long winter break – they won’t have played competitively since losing 1-0 to Rapid Vienna on December 6th and have recently been on winter training camps in Dubai and Valencia – I make us favourites to go through – narrowly.
If you’re travelling to Kharkiv, the Metalist Stadium is two stops from the city centre or four from the railway station, beside Metrobudivnykiv and Sportyvna stations (tokens cost 2UAH (about 15p) from machines at station entrances). Sumskaya is the city’s elongated answer to Northumberland Street, bending north from the museums and cathedrals at Konstytutsiyi Square (Instorychny Muzei Metro) and continuing past Ploshcha Svobody (Freedom Square; Universytet or Derzhprom Metro), which has the USSR’s first high-rise building, thousands of square metres of concrete and monumental statues to Lenin and Shevchenko (Taras, Ukraine’s national poet, and not Andrei, Chelsea’s biggest flop pre-Fernando Torres). With 100,000 students at the city’s universities, Kharkiv isn’t short on pubs. Shato, on Ploshcha Svobody, and Starogrod (Pushkinskaya Metro) both brew their own beer. Churchill’s Music Pub, near Arkhitektora Beketova Metro on Darvina Street, is a cellar bar with live music, and there is, of course, more than one faux-Irish pub to choose from. Go Kharkov (http://www.go-kharkov.com/best-places-in-kharkov/#comment-228) has the best, and most up-to-date, listings. На здоровье and Howay the lads!