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Europa League

Dnipro: An Eastern Europe success story

Dnipropetrovsk is a city of just shy of one million inhabitants in eastern Ukraine and, in a matter of days, it could be etched onto the map of European football for a long time to come. The locality’s flagship football team, FC Dnipro, is gearing up for the biggest occasion in its history when it takes on reigning title holders Sevilla in the Europa League final. From watching how joyously their players and supporters celebrated after the semi-final victory over Napoli, it would take some explaining to them of how blase an attitude English clubs and media have towards the tournament. Much like Alaves in 2001,  Middlesbrough in 2006, Fulham in 2010 and Braga a year later, this is Dnipro’s day in the sun – although they will hope to avoid the fate of those other four teams, all of whom saw their extraordinary European journey end in defeat in the final.

While the odds on Myron Markevich’s team getting to the Warsaw showpiece would have been lengthy even at the outset of the knockout rounds in February, Dnipro are no fly-by-nights. This is the culmination of a steady period of improvement, one which has seen them go close to lifting a first Ukrainian title in the last couple of seasons. In fact, a second-place finish 12 months ago ensured that Dnipro began this season in the Champions League qualifiers, where they lost to FC Copenhagen.

They would have been confident of emerging from a group containing Inter Milan, St Etienne and the little-known Azeri club Qarabag, but they just about managed to squeeze into the knockout rounds despite winning just two of six group games. An assertive victory over Champions League dropouts Olympiakos, who had beaten Juventus earlier in the season, in the round of 32 set up a last 16 clash with Ajax, another team to fall into the Europa League from its more illustrious cousin. The Dutch giants may not have been the force of old, but were still expected to progress. A last-gasp goal in extra time in the Amsterdam second leg sent Dnipro through on away goals and now they began to believe.

Club Brugge awaited in the quarter-finals. With the Belgians knocking out Liverpool’s conquerors Besiktas, the red half of Merseyside must have watched on glumly – or maybe not, depending on their stance on the Europa League’s worth. A cagey two-leg tie was settled by one Yevgen Shakhov goal and the fairytale continued into the last four, where Napoli lay in store. There was much talk about how Rafael Benitez looked primed to win his fourth European trophy with a fourth different club, but a late Yevgen Seleznyov goal in Naples made it 1-1 and put Dnipro in the box seat and the same player struck the only goal of the second leg to spark jubilant celebrations in Kiev. That’s right, Kiev. Due to Dnipropetrovsk’s location so near the epicentre of the Russian/Ukrainian conflict, the club has has to play ‘home’ games a full 200 kilometres away in the nation’s capital city. The players of Dnipro have not only made their fans happy; they have brought happiness to fans who have been forced to endure carnage around them.

The club had been given a flickering mention on Sky Sports News in January 2014 when, on transfer deadline day, star man Yevgen Konoplyanka was heavily linked with a move to Liverpool, one which didn’t come off. He stayed and, while the Reds have since spent big bucks on players who have largely disappointed, the Ukrainian midfielder has a European final to anticipate. Goalkeeper Denis Boyko has also emerged as a breakthrough figure in this season’s Europa League, putting in two outstanding performances against Napoli, while defender Dmitro Chygrinskiy briefly played in the same Barcelona team as Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and Ibrahimovic. Former Blackburn misfit Nikola Kalinic has revived his career in Ukraine and any Georgians among you will be aware of Java Kankava’s presence in the midfield. Dnipro will reprise their familiar role as underdogs for the final next week, having been cast in such a role every step of the way since the group stage. However, Sevilla won’t be fooled into thinking that a second successive Europa League triumph is a formality.

It may surprise you to know that, while Dnipro have yet to win the Ukrainian league since it began in the early 1990s, they have twice been champions of the Soviet Union in the Communist era. This is despite having competition from a Dynamo Kiev team that is much stronger than the current batch, plus Spartak Moscow, Zenit St Petersburg and a host of clubs from other former Soviet states. In both seasons following those title wins, they reached the quarter-finals of the old European Cup, so Dnipro have a track record in doing well on the continent.

However, 27 May 2015 will be a day like no other for the club. Even if they go down fighting, it will still represent a fantastic achievement that they have made it this far. Of course, for all the heart-warming chapters that have been written to date, the last one could yet turn out to be the most joyous of all. If Dnipro do lift the trophy in Warsaw on Wednesday, English clubs will get a damn good look at how much happiness this supposed waste of time of a tournament can bring to footballers and supporters.