The real Shevchenko visits England
When Dynamo Kiev arrive in north-west England trying to protect their two-goal lead over Manchester City and reach the Europa League quarter-finals, Roberto Mancini's side know better than to treat Andriy Shevchenko as just any old 34-year-old striker. It seems somehow wrong to label his first match in England since his 2009 departure from Chelsea as a return - because we never saw the real Sheva while he was in the Premier League.
When City's £27 million signing Edin Dzeko talked warmly of his admiration for Shevchenko before last week's first leg in Kiev, calling the Ukrainian his "favourite player" and referring to a match-worn Shevchenko shirt from his Milan days his "prized possession", it recalled a time when the No.7 was untouchable. During seven years in northern Italy, Silvio Berlusconi's favourite hit 175 goals for the Rossoneri, including 38 in Europe at a rate of better than one every two games.
Even in his presumed career twilight, Shevchenko's current fettle has more in common with the dynamic striker who fired Carlo Ancelotti to a swathe of domestic and continental silverware than the £30 million liability who cut such a disaffected figure at Carletto's current club.
Back where he started out, Ukraine's record scorer has been reborn. When he went back to Dynamo in August 2009, there was nothing part-time about it. His eagerness to return home was such that he tore up the final year of his £5m-a-year deal at Stamford Bridge rather than hold up matters with settlement negotiations. Shevchenko and family moved into a palatial apartment overlooking the river Dnipro, and the striker and his American model wife Kristen Pazik told the Ukrainian press of their wish for their two sons to learn the Ukrainian language.
Though Shevchenko scored in his first game back, a win over Metalurg Donetsk, it quickly became clear that in his second spell at the club, he would be more than just Dynamo's star player. Since his departure for Italy, the previously unchallenged Dynamo had gained a serious rival in Shakhtar, from the southern coalmining city of Donetsk. When their star turn left in 1999, Dynamo had won seven of the inaugural eight Ukrainian league titles; by the time he returned, the previously undecorated Shakhtar had won three of the previous five.
Generously funded by oligarch Rinat Akhmehtov, Shakhtar had brought in a raft of overseas stars and hot prospects en route to the top, including the Brazilians Elano, Brandao and Matuzalem. Dynamo are hardly paupers but have relied more on young Ukrainian prospects. Shevchenko was expected to be their mentor, the local boy done good returned to spark the new flock.
It was an idea that really appealed. It called to mind the guidance the young Shevchenko had himself received from the iconic Valeriy Lobanovskiy in his second spell coaching Dynamo, when he led a fine side (also including Sergey Rebrov) to the 1999 Champions League semi-finals. When Lobanovskiy suddenly passed away in 2002, during surgery that followed a stroke, Shevchenko was devastated. The riverside Dynamo stadium was almost immediately renamed after the coach. Shevchenko's glory years at Milan have always overshadowed his deep attachment to his home country in the public perception. Even when trudging through a hugely disappointing loan return to the San Siro in 2008-09, his goals kept Ukraine's hopes of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup alive. He scored six in qualifying overall - including an equaliser against England at Wembley in April 2009 - before Ukraine fell to Greece in a play-off.
It was arguably Shevchenko's attachment to his country that torpedoed his chances of success at Chelsea. He played through a persistent knee injury in order to lead Ukraine to the quarter-finals at their first (and thus far only) World Cup in Germany, in 2006. A below-par player, already faced with a difficult adaptation to life in the hurly-burly of English football, had little chance of getting up to speed, and his form and confidence never recovered. The unstoppable force of Serie A scored a mere nine league goals for Chelsea in two seasons.
Quite apart from his wider pastoral role at Dynamo, Shevchenko the player is sharper than he has been in years. He has netted six times in ten Ukrainian league starts this term and has scored in Dynamo's last three Europa League encounters: twice against Besiktas and in the first leg against City. If his strike against Besiktas at the Lobanovskiy had been sumptuous, the opener against City showed that his predatory instincts remained intact. Even at his lowest ebb with Chelsea, Shevchenko's work rate was notable, but his display against the Premier League side showed that his speed and wit was approaching its apex once again.
Mourinho's front three never suited Shevchenko, but he now thrives as part of Dynamo's forward trio, swapping posts in-game with the equally sparky Artem Milevskiy and Alexiy Yarmolenko. It is testament to Shevchenko's revitalisation that he does not noticeably lag behind colleagues eight and 13 years his junior, respectively.
Milevskiy will be absent at Eastlands, having broken his arm in the win over Vorskla at the weekend, but not the highly impressive Yarmolenko, who created Shevchenko's goal against City. One of Shevchenko's protégés, the promising 21-year-old Artem Kravets, is likely to step into Milevskiy's shoes.
Kravets is likely to be well prepared. City will need no telling after the first leg that Dynamo play slick, incisive football from back to front. They were impressive enough in Shevchenko's first season back in 2009-10, as they kept hope alive of qualifying from a near-impossible Champions League group containing Rubin Kazan, holders Barcelona and winners-in-waiting Inter until the final day.
Now Valeri Gazzaev has departed, his fellow Russian Yuri Semin has returned as coach. The man who helped Dynamo to their last title in 2009 has been a wily campaigner at European level with Lokomotiv Moscow, and will relish the chance to claim another major conquest. If he were to do so, few outside Eastlands would begrudge Andriy Shevchenko his moment of glory in England.