Espanyol face a make-or-break tie against Zorya Luhansk in the Europa League playoff round this evening. If they emerge victorious over the two legs, they will advance to the group stages and thereby be guaranteed another six matches and European participation into December at the least. This competition has caught fans’ imagination this season, so it is vital that the team reacts positively to defeat against Sevilla at the weekend. But who are the visitors to RCDE stadium?
Zorya (which translates as “dawn”, see the club crest”), are enjoying their sixth consecutive season of European competition, so in that regard they have the upper hand over Espanyol. One of the most successful periods in their history has coincided with the turbulence caused by the conflict in Ukraine sparked by the Russian annexation of Crimea. Luhansk city is the capital of Luhansk province, which, together with Donetsk, forms the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine. As a result of the conflict, ongoing since 2014, with an estimated death toll of over 13,000, Zorya have played their home games in Zaporizhia, about 400km to the west.
They might not have many fans in attendance, but they have given them something to cheer about with consistent top-four finishes in the league and Europa League scalps of teams like Athletic Bilbao, Hertha Berlin and Braga. They will not be overawed by the occasion, having twice participated in the Europa League group stages. Here they are sneaking a win at the San Mamés in 2017.
This level of consistency is impressive considering that their best players are routinely pinched by Ukrainian giants Dynamo Kiev and Shakhtar Donetsk: the hero in last season’s win over Braga, Oleksandr Karavaev, was sold to Dynamo this summer. Occasionally, international giants have got in on the act too: goalkeeper Andriy Lunin completed an 8.5m euro move to Real Madrid in 2018. Lunin is currently on loan to Valladolid, where he will compete with Masip for a starting place.
Zorya team news
The standout players in the current squad are goalkeeper Mykyta Shevchenko and striker Nazarii Rusyn. The Ukraine under-21 internationals were crucial in Zorya’s narrow 2-1 aggregate victory over CSKA Sofia of Bulgaria in the previous round. Shevchenko kept them in the game against a CSKA side playing with ten men, before Rusyn just about squeezed home the clincher in the 89th minute.
Rusyn is suspended for tonight’s first leg against Espanyol, having picked up two yellow cards in the competition so far. (The lesson here: don’t take your shirt off to celebrate a goal. Why is this a rule? I don’t know. But it is. So don’t do it.) This should give David Gallego the confidence to play with a little more freedom.
Espanyol team news
Espanyol go into the game without Adrià Pedrosa, who still hasn’t recovered from a quad problem, or new signing Sébastien Corchia, who has been left out having only joined up with his new teammates yesterday.
There could be a couple of changes in personnel compared to the match against Sevilla. Fernando Calero came on as a substitute in that one, and so should be considered ready to make his full debut, probably at the expense of Lluís López. The lack of creativity last Sunday may prompt Gallego to opt for Darder over Víctor Sánchez in central midfield, and Campuzano may have a chance of dislodging Wu Lei in attack.
If I had to guess, I’d say we’ll see something like:
This is a good opportunity for the team to regain confidence ahead of a trip to Vitoria to face Alavés on Sunday. They will want to travel to Ukraine next week without the pressure of needing to win, so we should hopefully see some goals tonight.
Tickets are available at RCDE stadium, so get down there for 9pm if you’re in Barcelona!