Manchester United vs Zorya Luhansk might very well be the biggest match in the history of the Ukrainian club, since the club won the Soviet Vysshaya Liga title back in 1972 (read all about Zorya Luhansk in our exclusive Europa League preview here).
The league title in 1972 meant that Zorya, which was competing as Zorya Voroshilovgrad at the time of the USSR, competed in the 1973 European Cup where Spartak Trnava eliminated them in the round of 16.
Since then, Zorya have not made any major inroads in any European competition, and the club now competes for the first time in the group stage of the Europa League. Hence, the match against Manchester United on Thursday will be their first encounter against an English club.
Manchester United have, however, played Ukrainian teams on six occasions, and have won four matches and tied two. Furthermore, the club from Manchester has won all three matches against Ukrainian teams when playing at home at Old Trafford.
For Luhansk, however, the contest will be about much more than just a football match. Like their compatriots, Shakhtar Donetsk, Zorya have been forced into exile due to the continued fighting in the Donbass.
Today the city of Luhansk is the capital of the internationally unrecognized Luhansk People’s Republic which, together with the Donetsk People’s Republic, forms the so-called Confederation of Novorossiya. As a result Zorya Luhansk cannot play their home matches in their nominal home stadium—a fact that must have completely escaped the front staff at Manchester United—and instead are forced to play in the Ukrainian port city of Odessa (you can read more about this here).
Given the difficult circumstances in which Zorya have found themselves, it is a minor miracle that the club have directly qualified for the group stage of the UEFA Europa League. In fact, the club continues its strong showing under talented head coach, Yuriy Vernydub, and is currently ranked second behind Shakhtar Donetsk in the Ukrainian Premier League table.
Despite this, Zorya will be very much the outsiders at Old Trafford on Thursday. The club, however, is a vivid reminder of a conflict that has escaped the hearts and minds of Western Europeans and, for this reason, the match in Manchester will be much more than just about football.
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