Football: Beware the dynamo

As Kiev starts to shiver, Arsenal are sure of a warm welcome.
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The Independent Online
TEMPERATURES are beginning to drop in Kiev as the Ukraine winter begins its assault. But there won't be any more fiery braziers with which to take the chill off the night on Wednesday than the city's Olympic Stadium where Arsenal, minus Dennis Bergkamp, strive to preserve their faltering Champions' League interest.

An anticipated 85,000 will ensure that, as Dynamo Kiev, who encapsulate the fierce pride of a nation which only regained its independence seven years ago, strive to regenerate their own claims, while the English champions would probably accept a draw.

It could also be a valedictory performance by the 22-year-old Andryi Shevchenko, arguably Europe's finest striker - some would say the world's, before his home crowd in a European game, with an pounds 18m transfer to Milan seemingly assured. He may not be the only Kiev player - average wage pounds 7,000 a week - to be lured towards warmer climes as the club seek to capitalise on their players' values, which can only have been enhanced by their performance at Wembley 11 days ago.

"There are a couple of players on the market, and it's no secret that Oleg Luzhniy is one of them," said Bob Sopel, the Oldham-based official Ukraine travel agent, who combines being a Kiev fan and a Manchester United box holder. He also acts as a go-between in football transfers, which began when he became involved in Andrei Kanchelskis' move from Donetsk to Manchester United in 1991.

Luzhniy was the right-back who cleared off the line after Marc Overmars had rounded the goalkeeper at Wembley and although a Sunday newspaper valued him at pounds 5m, at the age of 30 he seems unlikely to command that kind of figure. There has already been interest from Premiership clubs, and Sopel, born in Britain of Ukraine parents, said: "His attitude is incredible. They call him the Dynamo, because he just keeps going. He's a real British-style player. Other players would burn out, but he's got the physique to carry on and he's still got another four or five years ahead of him. There are also no airs or graces about him. He is the ultimate professional and that's been passed down from the coach, Valery Lobanovsky, who rules with an iron fist."

Sopel, who is on good terms with both the Ukraine president, Leonid Kuchma, and that of Dynamo Kiev, Grigory Surkis, is a good man to know, whether you need your passage through Borispol Airport speedily expedited, are contemplating marriage to a Ukrainian girl - he is considering setting up an introduction agency - or want to acquire one of their footballers. He acted as an intermediary when Blackburn inquired into the availability of Shevchenko in December last year, although Kiev spurned their approach.

During the Wembley game, Radio 5 Live's summariser Mark Lawrenson was scornful about whether eastern European players could settle in the west. Some of the actions of Kanchelskis, during his moves from Manchester United to Everton and then via Fiorentina to Rangers, may have helped confirm that prejudice, but Sopel maintained: "You can't tar a country with the actions of one man. It's like assuming all British players will act like Gazza, when they are actually more likely to be like Gary Lineker.

Kanchelskis, who is persona non grata in Kiev after choosing to play football for the reviled Russians, may be questioning his decision, following Ukraine's Euro 2000 defeat of his adopted country, who have no points from three games. "I hear Russia are planning friendlies to regain their confidence against teams they know they can beat," said Sopel straight- faced. "But the only one they can find is Vatican City."

His attitude says as much about Ukraine's pride as their antipathy to Russia and Arsenal must not underestimate it. Certainly the New Openness, as it is called in Ukraine, does not extend to their champions' defence, which at Wembley gave Arsene Wenger's men only rare sights of goal.

"Kiev are strong on the break, and it could be that they will be more vulnerable at home, but you can rest assured Lobanovsky will have prepared meticulously and will have yet another game-plan up his sleeve," Sopel said.

Lobanovsky, three times USSR coach and now back at Kiev, where he was a club player and international, after five years in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, comments little these days, but Arsenal should beware one of his observations: "The stronger the opposition the better, since only tough opposition stimulates players to perfect their skills."