Dynamo legend Semin faces seminal season

It doesn’t take the nose of Columbo to sniff out the fact that Dynamo Kiev is a club that places great store in the importance of history.

It’s right there in your face as you approach the lavishly-pillared entrance to the Valeriy Lobanobvskiy Stadium, which is flanked with portrait photos of the great man, who Dynamo legend Andrei Shevchenko summarily references as his mentor. Shevchenko was devastated by Lobanovskiy’s sudden death, following a stroke, in 2003.

Now back at Dynamo in a mentor’s role of his own, Shevchenko has never hidden is admiration for another veteran of soccer in the former Soviet Union, the current Dynamo coach, Yuri Semin. Like Shevchenko and Lobanovskiy before him, Semin passionately believes in the nurturing of youthful talent. Kiev is a great place to believe in that, with the club bringing through young Ukrainian talent in recent years to a far greater extent than its major domestic rival Shakhtar Donetsk, with their own coach Mircea Lucescu having mainly built his side around a core of Brazilians.

Yet Semin is now seriously under the microscope following the sorry Champions League qualifying exit to Rubin Kazan. Dynamo has a plethora of gifted attackers at its disposal, with Ukraine internationals Andrei Yarmolenko, Artem Milevskiy and Artem Kravets joined by Nigerian international Brown Ideye, freshly signed from Sochaux for €9m. Ideye has started superbly at domestic level but seems almost superfluous following the European failure, even if a domestic battle with Shakhtar awaits. The whole flush came up short against the superbly well-organized Rubin.

It’s not as if the Russian doesn’t know his way around the top deck of European competition. This correspondent first met Semin following Lokomotiv Moscow’s Champions League last 16 win over Monaco in February 2004, in the Russian capital. He had an easy, charming swagger to him, strolling leather-jacketed into the post-game press conference, mirroring the considerable verve that his young side had used to comprehensively outplay the then-French league leaders. Lokomotiv eventually went out on away goals to the eventual finalist after the second leg on the Cote d’Azur.

Semin did have the advantage of a very good set of players – Marat Izmailov was still a wonderkid, before the injuries that have since handicapped his progress, and midfield trojan Dimitri Loskov was in his prime – but there was no doubting his own role in the success. And what success it was. Semin’s team won the Russian title in both 2002 and 2004. He left for the Russia job the following year, briefly returning to Lokomotiv as president in 2007.

Semin was fired from his brief third spell in charge by deeply-unpopular president Olga Smorodskaya in November last year, and agreed to return for a second spell at Dynamo a month later, having turned the club around in his first spell between, bringing the title back from Donetsk.

With all his honors won at Lokomotiv and Dynamo, it’s easy to wonder why he keeps putting himself through it. Though mainly a man of abstinence – Semin says he rarely drinks, though admits he is partial to the odd Chivas Regal – he is an addict when it comes to the game. He briefly left Lokomotiv to coach the New Zealand Olympic side in 1990, but admitted that he quickly became “bored” without the day-to-day involvement with players.

Semin’s involvement is intense on every level, and he favors a high-pressing game, but one wonders if he currently has the right sort of players in midfield to implement it. Olexandr Aliev was an unused substitute in both games and the more blood-and-thunder Lukman Haruna removed at half-time in the second leg for his own good, pre-empting a likely red card.

But it had all been wrong from the start. Semin’s plans were sabotaged shortly after the start of the first game at the Lobanovskiy. The decision to start Pape Diakhate at center-back, after the Senegalese recently returned from a distinctly average loan spell at Lyon, proved disastrous. Diakhate’s slip let in Christian Noboa to set up Alan Kasaev for a fifth-minute opener – which Semin later described as “an unusual goal that changed everything”. Unfortunately nothing changed about Dynamo’s approach, pressing in an ever-more anxious fashion, playing into Rubin’s hands – a trait that extended into the return in Russia this week.

Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day, and it was the much-lampooned former Newcastle United manager Joe Kinnear who once said: “You’ve got to be prepared to adapt tactically. If you’re not, you invariably end up in the s***.” At 64, who’d have thought that an undisputed great like Semin could do with a morsel of advice like this?

He is now faced with a hard slog to usurp Shakhtar at the top of the domestic league, with the consolation prize of a Europa League place on the horizon. Whether Semin is losing his magic or not, only the most hard-hearted would deny him a European trophy of some sort as a denouement to a glittering career come May next year.