The Ukrainian-Croatian UEFA Europa League third round qualification matchup Oleksandriya vs Hajduk Split should provide one of the more intriguing games of this week’s Europa League contests.
Hajduk Split is a bit of a veteran on the European circuit, despite the fact that the club’s glory days are long past—Hajduk hasn’t reached the Europa League group stage since the 2010-11 season (more on the club here). Hajduk, however, still will be more experienced than FC Oleksandriya, which will be appearing in Europe for the first time.
Oleksandriya meanwhile, was only founded in the dying days of the Soviet Union—the club from the Kirovohrad oblast was only founded in 1990, although they claim 1948 as their original founding year. In fact, the club, in its current form, was only established in 2014, as their predecessor, PFC Oleksandriya, was merged with FC UkrAhroKom Holovkivka, whose wealthy owner, Serhiy Kuzmenko, saved the club from bankruptcy.
Then last season, Oleksandriya became an unlikely success story. Manager Volodymyr Sharan’s disciplined defensive approach made the club a tough opponent in the Ukrainian Premier League, and the team finished the campaign in sixth place.
Under normal circumstances, sixth place would not have been enough to secure a spot in the third qualification round of the UEFA Europa League. But Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk’s financial problems, and the fact that Dnipro’s owner Ihor Kolomoyskyi has refused to pay the club’s debts, meant that Dnipro was banned from European football due to breaches of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations.
As a result of Dnipro’s financial troubles, fourth place Zorya Luhansk was granted the direct path to the Europa League group stage. This also meant that Oleksandriya was granted a place in the Europa League.
The match against Hajduk Split on Thursday, however, will show whether Oleksandriya can justify their inclusion in the competition. The Ukrainians opened their league season on Saturday in Kyiv against league champions Dynamo, where they received a 5-1 beating. Of course Dynamo, which will participate in the UEFA Champions League, are a much bigger opponent than Hajduk, but the Croatians, who won their league opener against HNK Cibalia on July 17, will have noticed the many weaknesses in Oleksandriya’s game that were exposed by Dynamo on Saturday.
Yet in Ukraine itself, the biggest story has been Maksim Bily, a Ukrainian defender who plays for Hajduk Split, and is already able to converse in Croatian despite just having joined the club one year ago from Zorya Luhansk. Bily told the Croatian media that Oleksandriya should not be underestimated, despite the heavy loss to Dynamo: “They are tough especially at home where the stadium is always full.”
Whether Hajduk will be able to rely on their home support remains to be seen, as the club has dealt with various fan problems in the past with Hajduk’s fan groups having been involved during troubles at the European Championships (more on that here). Ukrainian ultras are no lambs either, and it will be interesting to see whether the game will see any fan trouble.
Problems on the stand beside the match promises to be interesting, as both clubs are relatively even, with Hajduk perhaps being the slight favourites because they are more experienced in international football.