Ukrainians have plenty of backing
14 February ~ They may have travelled over 1,600 miles to get to Tyneside but Metalist Kharkiv will be well acclimatised to life in the north-east by the time they step out at St James' Park this evening. Having arrived in the UK last weekend, they've spent the week training at the Darlington Arena and indulged in with a friendly against Northern League Division One side Whitley Bay on Sunday evening. It's fair to say that the hosts were happier with the 1-1 draw than their guests. Despite that result, Newcastle would be rash to underestimate their visitors.
Metalist reached the quarter-finals last season and breezed through the group stage this year, while domestically they are relentless bronze medallists. They have finished third in each of the previous six campaigns and seem unable to break the dominance of Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev.
The club has broadly followed the example of Shakhtar by fusing together eastern European and South American virtues. Key to the side's chances is Cleiton Xavier, a smart and gifted central midfielder who sets the tempo. Fellow Brazilian Taison has departed to rivals Shakhtar and will be missed on the wing.
The club's emergence over the last decade can be traced to the backing of local oligarch Oleksandr Yaroslavsky. The former police officer became something of a cheerleader for the club and the city, with his contacts and finance ensuring Kharkiv made it onto the list of host cities for Euro 2012.
His success was widely attributed to his ability to retain good relations with the key officials, something that came to an abrupt end in December when, following a dispute with the local authorities regarding ownership of the Metalist Stadium, he shocked everybody by announcing that he was selling the club. "I don't want to invest money in such an investment climate, because I cannot understand the attitude of the local authorities," he said. "Do they have a lot of investors who invest hundreds of millions of dollars? Or my dollars are different in colour?"
Into the fold stepped Serhiy Kurchenko, a 27-year-old law professional who purchased Yaroslavsky's stake for a reported $100 million (£64.5m). He is believed to be the figurehead behind GazUkraina-2009, a conglomerate of companies that import gas into Ukraine. Their rise to prominence has been rapid: formed in 2008 with investment of just $8,000, they are now responsible for about half of Ukraine's gas imports. That rapid growth has raised suspicions, primarily due to the consistency with which they have won contract auctions held by state-owned bodies.
Ukraine's crony network is extensive and complicated but Kurchenko is known to be close to Oleksandr Yanukovych, the son of the country's president. At one stage Yanukovych Jr was even rumoured to be in the running to become the new president of Metalist. While Kurchenko's background may raise doubts, the club's supporters are more concerned that their new owner fulfils his promise of delivering the title within three years and a European trophy within five. Marcus Haydon