Ilya Zabarnyi: Ukraine's Koulibaly-esque wonderkid on Chelsea's radar

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It is more than 19 years since legendary Dynamo Kyiv coach Valery Lobanovsky tragically passed away at the age of 63.

The man who led the Ukrainian giants to two Cup Winners' Cup triumphes and three European Cup/Champions League semi-finals is loved around the country, but especially by football fans in its capital.

It is fitting, then, that perhaps one of the finest talents to emerge in Ukranian football since Lobanovsky was nurturing Andriy Shevchenko and Serhiy Rebrov in the late 1990s is a boyhood Dynamo supporter.

Ilya Zabarnyi is the first player born after the great coaching maestro's death to represent Ukraine, though his own development is being overseen by the man who has long positioned himself as the ultimate Dynamo rival and enemy.

Mircea Lucescu, who coached Shakhtar Donetsk between 2004 and 2016, winning eight league titles, sensationally took over at Dynamo in the summer of 2020. To understand how momentous that move was, just imagine Sir Alex Ferguson joining Liverpool, and that should give you an idea.

Tensions were high, but the 75-year-old Romanian proved that his decision was the correct one, bringing the title back to the Olympic Stadium for the first time since 2016.

And teenager Zabarnyi was at the very heart of this remarkable success.

A year ago, only those who closely followed Dynamo Kyiv's youth team knew the homegrown central defender's name. His sudden appearance in the starting lineup to face AZ Alkmaar in a crucial Champions League qualifier in September, therefore, stunned everyone, including club president Ihor Surkis.

When the club's starting centre-backs Mykyta Burda and Denys Popov picked up injuries at the start of the season, Dynamo planned to make a new signing. "After a couple of days, Lucescu called me and said that there is no need to spend money," Surkis recalled. "He promoted Zabarnyi from the youth team and saw a lot of potential in him.

"I tried to convince him that it's a big gamble ahead of the Champions League qualifiers, but he was absolutely certain. He trusted Zabarnyi from that moment."

That is how his meteoric rise began. In just his second first-team appearance, Zabarnyi did a magnificent job against AZ, as Dynamo went on to qualify for the Champions League group stage.

There were a couple of mistakes in his first league matches, but the impression was so positive that Ukraine manager Shevchenko decided to call-up the youngster for the national team in October.

"I was in shock after getting invited," Zabarnyi said. "I thought I would be there check out the atmosphere and almost go as a tourist, but I ended up in the starting lineup against France!"

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At the age of just 18 years and 36 days, he became the second-youngest player to represent Ukraine behind Rebrov, leaving Shevchenko himself down in third.

It was quite a debut too. With numerous Ukrainian players out with Covid-19, the friendly game at Stade de France was in danger of being cancelled. It eventually went ahead, with Zabarnyi playing 90 minutes and facing Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann, Anthony Martial and Olivier Giroud. 

Though the final scoreline read 7-1 to the hosts, the centre-back received plaudits from Shevchenko nevertheless. Bravery and fighting spirit cemented his place in the starting lineup, and by the end of 2020 Zabarnyi had faced Germany twice in the Nations League, while also being part of a defence which kept a clean sheet in a 1-0 win over Spain. 

Zabarnyi also proceeded to play every second in Dynamo's six Champions League group-stage matches, and while his side lost all of their matches against Barcelona and Juventus, the centre-back gained extremely valuable experience.

He was much more assured come 2021, and was not making the same mistakes in domestic encounters anymore.

Under the guidance of Lucescu, his positioning and distribution have improved significantly, and he finished the season having completed 93 per cent of his passes. "Mircea helped me by criticising me a lot. He has given me everything," Zabarnyi says.

He is fearless too. Breaking his nose did not prevent him from taking part in the game of the season against Shakhtar in April, and Zabarynyi even took off his protective mask and threw it away. Dynamo kept a clean sheet in the 1-0 win, with the centre-back absolutely imperious.

Zabarnyi then proceeded to score his first professional goal at the best timing imaginable.

Having prevailed over Shakhtar, Dynamo needed to beat Ingulets in order to celebrate the title with three matches to go, and it was the youngster who netted after just five minutes. His team won 5-1, but his effort went down in history as "the goal that won the championship".

It is hardly surprising, then, that Zabarnyi was voted Ukrainian Player of the Month in April. May was decent too, with Dynamo completing the domestic double by beating Zorya in the Cup final.

Just over a year ago, his monthly salary stood at around £100 ($125). Now his name is on everyone's lips, and it is rumoured that Chelsea or AC Milan could try to sign him in the summer.

Dynamo are keen to keep the youngster in their ranks for now, while Zabarnyi's own dream is to play alongside his idol Virgil van Dijk, whose game he tries to emulate.

Tall, strong in the air, physically imposing and good reader of the game, he is not at the Dutchman's level yet, but his talents have been compared to Napoli star Kalidou Koulibaly by local scout Alex Velikikh.

And now his phenomenal rise has reached the European Championship. Zabarnyi is the youngest defender at the tournament, but he is a certain starter under Shevchenko, and looked assured despite Ukraine's opening defeat against the Netherlands.

It is symbolic, too, that Ukraine's two other group-stage matches – versus North Macedonia and Austria – are to take place in Bucharest.

Romania may not have qualified, but Lucescu nurtured a star who could take the tournament by storm in his homeland.