Underrated Srna holds key to Shakhtar triumph

Posted by Michael Yokhin

There are memories that will, quite amusingly, make both Shakhtar and Dortmund fans smile on the eve of the second leg of their last-16 Champions League tie Tuesday in Germany.

Uersfeld: Dortmund playing for retrieval of honour

In February 2005, Dortmund rivals Schalke visited Donetsk in the first leg of a last-16 UEFA Cup tie, and got off to a great start thanks to a goal by the famous chubby Brazilian striker Ailton, who the season before led Werder Bremen to the Bundesliga title as the league's top goalscorer.

His time in Gelsenkirchen was largely unhappy, but that day he was the hero, even though Schalke conceded a late equaliser by another Brazilian enfant terrible, Brandao. A 1-1 draw made the Germans firm favourites to qualify in the return leg a week later.

The Ukrainians, however, had other ideas. Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, in a typically impressive performance, assisted the supremely talented Nigerian striker Julius Aghahowa, whose career got spectacularly unstuck after the ill-fated move to Wigan in 2007. That was that - for all their pressure, Schalke failed to score an equaliser, and Shakhtar went through, only to lose to AZ Alkmaar in the next round.

A scoring draw - which Dortmund achieved in Ukraine two weeks ago - is a massive result for a visiting team. But it never assures safe passage, even if you represent Germany. A more recent example of crashing out after achieving a 2-2 away draw came in 2007, when Bayern Munich met AC Milan in the Champions League quarter-finals.

Ottmar Hitzfeld's Bayern team were extremely happy when Daniel van Buyten completed his brace deep into injury time at San Siro. The Swiss coach wasn't smiling anymore when Clarence Seedorf took his defence apart at Allianz Arena, scoring a brilliant goal and assisting Pippo Inzaghi with an exquisite back-heel en route to a sensational 2-0 win. Seedorf, Inzaghi and Carlo Ancelotti then proceeded to lift the Cup after taking sweet revenge against Liverpool in the final.

Shakhtar have long aspired to get to the very final stages of the Champions League, and this season the feeling was their time might have come. Long gone are the days of 2005 when Alkmaar destroyed them home and away. That was eight years ago, and to fully understand the time scale you should remember Ralf Rangnick was on Schalke's bench when they lost to Shakhtar.

He was sacked after one season, then went on to take the helm at Hoffenheim in the third division, helped build an impressive empire, got promoted to the Bundesliga and almost led it at the winter break, saw the project stalling, resigned over Luiz Gustavo's transfer to Bayern behind his back, returned to Schalke, won 5-2 against Inter at San Siro, got exhausted and finally landed (or rather got wings) as sporting director at Red Bull Salzburg.

Mircea Lucescu, on the other hand, was already in his current position on the Shakhtar bench in 2004-05, his first season in Ukraine. Stability is the name of the game in Donetsk.

Believe it or not, Ailton played for 13 teams in eight countries since leaving Gelsenkirchen. Needless to say, none of Schalke's players from the 2005 squad remain at the club. Those names include Niels Oude Kamphuis, Tomasz Waldoch and Sven Vermant. Remember them? Great footballers they were, but it seems like ages since they retired.

At Shakhtar, you can still find three veterans from that win at Schalke. Remarkably, all three are from Eastern Europe. Czech midfield general Tomas Hubschman joined them in 2004, while Romanian left-back Razvan Rat and Croatian wing-back Darijo Srna did so in 2003. This summer they will celebrate a decade in Donetsk, and Srna, the team's long-serving captain, should get much bigger credit for his achievements.

If Srna played for a more fashionable club in a more fashionable country, he would have long been celebrated as the best right wing-back in the world. The Croatian has virtually no weaknesses. He is technically sublime, extremely fast, possesses great vision, has strong tackles and even better crosses, is a born leader, and can hit glorious free-kicks to boot.

He scores important goals and helps others score even more, currently leading the Ukrainian league with 10 assists this season - that's the amount Willian and Fernandinho got combined. Quite simply, Srna is one of the best players you would ever meet.

Last month, the Croatian captain scored his 20th international goal in his 100th game for country, in a 4-0 win over South Korea. Not a bad record for a nominal defender, and you might recall that his free-kick against Australia was one of the most beautiful strikes at 2006 World Cup. He also played in three European Championships. His century of caps is equal to the record of Carles Puyol, but Srna is four years younger than the Catalan, and has a lot to offer in the years to come.

The captain was one of the best players on the field in the first leg against Borussia two weeks ago, and scored a brilliant goal with another trademark free-kick. His importance is absolutely impossible to overestimate, and if Shakhtar are to beat Dortmund at Signal Iduna Park, Srna will have to be at his very best.

He will also have to get the upper hand over Lukasz Piszczek, another right-wing and star who is massively underrated. In a way, this game might be described as a duel between two of the best right-backs in the world, with all due respect to Rafael and Alvaro Arbeloa, who will take the pitch in the other Champions fixture Tuesday night in Manchester.

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