Champions League

Bayern apprehensive over Ukraine trip

2015-02-16 14:10
Pep Guardiola (AFP)

LVIV - Shakhtar Donetsk has escaped Ukraine's war zone, but it is well outside Bayern Munich's comfort zone.

After last month's unexpected 4-1 thrashing at Wolfsburg, a result that punctured the German champion's aura of invincibility, Bayern now meets Shakhtar, a refugee team from war-torn eastern Ukraine that has left its home city, for a place in the Champions League quarterfinals.

Even though Shakhtar's temporary home in Lviv, western Ukraine, is around 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) from the conflict in the east, Bayern travels with apprehension.

"It's hard to grasp and (it is) a unique experience to be playing against a team that is based in a crisis area," forward Thomas Mueller said. "Somehow, it's a surreal situation. You know there is this terrible war out there, but you don't really realize it because you don't really know such a situation personally."

After the Wolfsburg defeat, Bayern has taken time to return to its ruthless best, but did so Saturday with an 8-0 rout of Hamburger SV in the Bundesliga. It was a timely boost ahead of the Champions League - "a good dress rehearsal" according to Mueller.

With its players forced to leave their homes, due to the conflict, Shakhtar's form this season has been mixed.

The Ukrainian team boasts the Champions League's top scorer in Luiz Adriano, who scored nine goals in the group stage, including eight against severely outclassed Group H outsider BATE Borisov.

Shakhtar, however, labored to a draw and defeat against out-of-sorts Athletic Bilbao and won only once in Lviv. Shakhtar also goes into the Bayern game without having played a competitive game in two months due to the Ukrainian league's winter break.

Here are some things to know about Tuesday's game:

Lviv is far from the warzone, but not untroubled by Ukraine's instability.

Over the last year, there have been sporadic violent incidents, including a reported attack on the mayor's house in December during which a rocket-propelled grenade was used.

Bayern decided not to travel until Monday afternoon and will head back home right after the match.

UEFA told the Associated Press earlier this month that it was "confident the match will be played in Lviv without any problem."

There have been some tensions between Shakhtar fans and supporters of local team Karpaty Lviv, but without any reports of violence at matches, although Karpaty fans have staged protests at some Shakhtar games.

The match may be taking place in Ukraine, but don't confuse it with a Shakhtar home game, captain Darijo Srna tells the Associated Press.

The 34,900-capacity Arena Lviv should be full, but many spectators are likely to be Lviv locals more excited at the prospect of watching Champions League football than supporting Shakhtar. In the group stage, the Ukrainian champion had a better record away than in Lviv.

"For us, it's a big problem, because we are not playing at home, we are playing away, a new arena," Srna said, comparing Lviv to the feverish reception Shakhtar used to receive in its home city of Donetsk.

"You don't have the power like you have at the Donbass Arena. The Donbass Arena is something special - it's our stadium, it's our fans, it's our city."

Bayern has never played Shakhtar before, but the Ukrainians know all about Bayern coach Pep Guardiola.

Shakhtar's best Champions League performance to date came in the 2010-11 season, when it reached the quarterfinals only to be dismantled 6-1 on aggregate by Guardiola's Barcelona.

Srna said Guardiola is "one of the best coaches in the world," adding "for me, that Barcelona team (of 2011) is better than today's Bayern."

Since that last encounter with Guardiola, Shakhtar has seen an exodus of big names.

"I think we have more experience than four years ago, but we don't have the same team," he said, noting that Willian, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Fernandinho had all left. "But we have new players who will in the future show that their place is in Shakhtar."

Despite scoring eight in the demolition of Hamburger SV on Saturday, Bayern's stars are preaching caution after the shock of last month's loss to Wolfsburg.

"We shouldn't overrate the win and claim everything is perfect again," said Mueller. "We have to remain sober. There were questions in the three games before. I don't want us to be celebrated now. It's a narrow gap between being a failure or world class, but I hope we can take this form to Lviv."

Guardiola was more upbeat.

"We must quickly focus on the Champions League," coach Pep Guardiola said. "But I am pleased that our way of playing is back."


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