METALIST Kharkiv are utterly out of keeping with their surroundings. When it comes to football, little is as it seems here.
The north east industrial town is a classic relic of the Soviet era. Dreary tenement blocks line pot-holed streets which battered old Ladas chug up and down.
In the middle of this oasis of drab, someone has dropped a modern, imaginatively-designed football stadium.
With its spidery steelwork frame and glass front, crossing the road to the stadium is like walking through a time-travel portal in some corny science-fiction film. The big screen facing into the street, constantly blaring out a Europop soundtrack to the football highlights, is as attention-grabbing as its neighbouring buildings are mundane.
Sixty-two-year-old Myron Markevich is a talented man who has coached his country but, in the confines of a Press room at least, is far from inspiring.
The Ukrainian’s translated answers were as deadpan as their delivery. It is unlikely Markevich has ever heard of Geoffrey Boycott, but he straight-batted questions with a determination the cricket legend would be proud of.
If Metalist’s team played anything like their coach, a second 0-0 in seven days would be guaranteed in the deciding game of this last-32 Europa League tie.
“We all know Metalist can play better and they will play better,” said Markevich, dangerously verging towards opinion as he reflected on how his team had been sharpened by a first competitive game since early December.
“We had a hard game in England and the team lacked the game practice so everything will be different here.
“I think our chances to win are equal. Our chances to go through are equal to Newcastle’s.
“I think it (the style of the game) is more a question for the visiting coach. I know only how my team will play. I think Newcastle will play as we allow them to play, and we will play as they allow us to.”
With a vibrant South American triumvirate of Juan Manuel Torres, Cleiton Xavier and Jose Ernesto Sosa causing trouble behind the lone striker, Argentinian Jonathan Cristaldo, cash-rich Kharkiv are a fluid and imaginative side no more representative of their manager’s personality than their city.
The first leg may have ended 0-0 but that was no reflection on the football played by both sides.
Looking suitably bored as he sat alongside Markevich yesterday evening, 37-year-old goalkeeper Olexandr Goryainov was as under-employed in the Metalist Press room as he had been busy on the St James’ Park field, the only Ukrainian in Kharkiv’s team that day pulling off a string of impressive saves.
Even with Goryainov so inspired he ought to have conceded twice, the Norwegian officials chalking off two legitimate Papiss Cisse goals they wrongly suspected had been scored from offside positions.
Impressive on the counter-attack, Metalist ensured Newcastle’s Tim Krul had to be equally sharp.
Like the Magpies, Metalist must also score to avoid penalties, but they must win to book their place in the next round. You might expect it to prompt a more forceful approach, and it might. But the ball, it seems, is firmly in Newcastle’s court.
“Usually we choose an offensive style of play and we will try to do that again,” Markevich explained. There had, of course, already been a caveat. “It depends on the opponent.”
If a bare-looking pitch – no different to St James’, Markevich insisted – does not bode well for a feast of football, the atmosphere should be more conducive.
The first leg was played to a stadium less than 60% full. Again there will be around 500 visiting fans, but in a gate at or near the stadium’s 40,000 capacity.
“It will be a great atmosphere and it will be like in England because English fans also know good football and how to support,” said the coach.
“I think you will like the game very much.”
That Markevich, ever the salesman.