Eastern European football review of 2010: Shakhtar Donetsk on top

Jonathan Wilson

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Aug 1, 2010
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Shakhtar and Zenit St Petersburg have impressed, but progress in the east has been incremental at best

The year ended with a reminder of what used to be in eastern Europe, as Robert Prosinecki was appointed manager of Red Star Belgrade. It is 20 years since he was a key figure in the last eastern European side to win the European Cup; this season only one, Shakhtar Donetsk, has reached the last 16 of the Champions League. Following CSKA Moscow's progress to the knockout stage last year, that perhaps hints at the beginnings of a renewal, but two sides making it through the group stage in seven years is still a world away from the era when crack eastern European outfits were the bane of British clubs.

There are those who will instinctively dislike Shakhtar because they are oligarch-driven, but it is hard to believe any oligarch has driven his club was well as Rinat Akhmetov. He has shown great patience, giving Mircea Lucescu six years to construct a squad that plays intelligent, attacking football, and has supplanted Dynamo Kyiv as Ukraine's pre-eminent team, winning four of the past six titles. They went into the winter break 12 points clear. There are those who complain they are over-reliant on imports and don't develop enough of their own players – a particular frustration given Ukraine's recent encouraging performances in youth competition – but that tends to be the way in modern football. Dynamo, meanwhile, seemed to be treading water under Valery Gazzaev, but the return of Yury Semin after an unhappy stint back at his first love, Lokomotiv Moscow, should restore to them a sense of direction.

Their Champions League exploits mean Shakhtar are probably eastern Europe's team of the year just ahead of Zenit St Petersburg, who won the Russian league at a canter. Luciano Spalletti was one of the pioneers of strikerlessness at Roma, and his use of Alexander Kerzhakov as a false nine was devastatingly effective. The one disappointment was their Champions League exit to Auxerre in the qualifying stages, when they were effectively undone by poor defending at set plays and a loss of discipline. They made up for it in the Europa League, though, winning all six matches in their group.

The two Russian sides that did make it to the Champions League both ended up disappointing. Rubin Kazan, although drawn with Barcelona again, underwhelmed against both FC Copenhagen and Panathinaikos, and Kurban Berdyev's decision to spend £7m on Obafemi Martins looks badly misjudged for a coach who has had an excellent record working the transfer market on limited resources. Spartak seemed to have done the hard work by winning away to Marseille, but a capitulation against Didier Deschamps's side at home undid them. After a stuttering start, Spartak's young squad showed enough promise towards the end of the season to finish fourth and earn the coach and general manager, Valery Karpin, a contract extension – and in the waif-like 18-year-old Jano Ananidze they have a very special creative talent.

Second in the league went to CSKA Moscow, whose coach, Leonid Slutsky, continues to impress. They went unbeaten in their final 16 games of the season in all competitions, reaching the knockout phase of the Europa League by dropping only two points, and that despite the sale of Milos Krasic to Juventus in the summer.

FC Sibir Novosibirsk, who lost in the Russian Cup final to Zenit but in doing so became the easternmost side ever to qualify for a European competition, also deserve a mention, not least because they beat PSV Eindhoven 1-0 in their home leg (before losing 5-0 away).

It would be remiss also not to make reference to the ongoing allegations of match-fixing that continue to blight Russian football, and to Russia's success in bidding for the 2018 World Cup. Whatever doubts there may be about the process, this represents a huge step in the sporting rehabilitation of the country.

Of the other eastern European sides in the Champions League, only CFR Cluj so much as won a point, but the Romanian champions still finished fourth in their group with a win and a draw. It's been a miserable year for them, and they lie eighth in the Romanian table, 12 points behind the leaders Otelul Galati, who are five clear of FC Timisoara and seemingly set fair for their first league title, as the hegemony of the big Bucharest clubs shows no sign of reasserting itself.

MSK Zilina lost all six games, but even the fact a Slovakian side reached the group stage and no Czech side did, and Slovakia's appearance at the World Cup – where they were the only eastern European side to reach the second round – indicates the balance in that relationship has shifted.

Viktoria Plzen lead the Czech League by four points at the winter break as they hunt a first league title, while in Slovakia Zilina, the defending champions, are six clear.

Apart from Slovakia and Serbia, who showed familiar promise only to falter yet again in the finals, the only eastern European presence at the World Cup was Slovenia. Having beaten Algeria in their opener, though, they allowed a two-goal lead to slip against the USA and seemed almost resigned to defeat against England. Getting to South Africa was a great achievement, but the sense is that they should have done rather better. With Russia fitful in Euro 2012 qualifying, the eastern European national side of the year has probably been Montenegro who, under Zlatko Kranjcar, have beaten Wales and Switzerland at home, and away from Podgorica beaten Bulgaria and drawn with England to lead their group.

Croatia have also shown signs of a resurgence in Euro 2012 qualifying, although they may come to regret a home draw against Greece despite away wins in Israel and Latvia. Domestically, it's a familiar story, with Dinamo Zagreb five points clear of Hajduk Split, and the brightest Croatian story of the year has probably been the form of Luka Modric, one of the less sung of Tottenham's clutch of heroes this season.

The Hungarian title went, again, to Debrecen, but they have struggled this season and lie fifth, eight points behind Videoton, another of the teams seeking a first league title (although they were a force in the 80s when they reached the 1985 Uefa Cup final, which they lost 3-0 to Real Madrid).

In Bulgaria two preposterously large numbers catch the eye: the eight coaches CSKA Sofia have gone through this year, and the 16 goals in 12 league appearances scored by Garra Dembélé this season. That still hasn't been enough to take Levski top, though, and they trail Litex Lovech by five points.

Poland, as usual, has been dominated by the ongoing corruption scandal that has led to more than 200 arrests of referees, players and club officials, something that at least indicates the issue is being tackled. The champions, Lech Poznan, with their fine new stadium, have put up a fine showing in the Europa League, knocking out Juventus, while the league is finely poised. Jagiellonia Bialystok, another side without a title, are three points clear of Wisla Krakow and Legia Warsaw.

In Serbia, Partizan Belgrade lost every game in the Champions League, but should retain their Serbian league title unless Prosinecki's return at Red Star Belgrade can overhaul a five-point deficit. He has spoken bravely of restoring the style of two decades ago, but as he surveys a mediocre squad and a boardroom riven by innuendo, even he must realise that is a distant, if not impossible task. Shakhtar and Zenit offer hope for the east, but 2010 has been another year in which, if progress has been made, it has been incremental.

Jonathan Wilson

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