A December trip to Kiev is seldom relished by players from western European giants like Barcelona. The temperature is predicted to be minus one Celsius and snowing when the Catalans meet the Ukrainian champions Dynamo tonight in the Olympic Stadium, a vast socialist style bowl which is inhospitable at the best of times.
Barca have travelled extensively this year and while the players will cherish the two-week winter break after the trip to Abu Dhabi, one was happy to leave the Catalan sunshine on the plane east yesterday. Defender Gaby Milito, who has been named in their 20-man squad, is back after a horrific 19-month absence with injury. "Only God and Gaby knows what pain he has been through during that time," said Barca's club doctor at the weekend.
Injuries have cursed Milito's career. The Buenos Aires-born star, a big-money signing from Zaragoza in the summer of 2007, made his top-flight debut in his homeland aged just 17 after rising through the ranks at Independiente. Although highly regarded, his four years at Independiente were hampered by injury, including a torn cruciate ligament in 2001. He was back to enjoy his side's Apertura victory in 2002 and was named Argentine player of the year in 2004 - the year he moved to Spain. He was about to sign for Real Madrid until club doctors suggested he had not fully recovered from his knee injury. He went instead to Zaragoza, who beat Real in the Copa del Rey final of 2003. A victory Milito enjoyed hugely.
A full international, he was joined at Zaragoza by his striker brother Diego and the pair were instrumental in leading the side to a sixth-placed finish in 2007. An offer to play for Barca was considered too good to turn down and he played 41 games in his first season. Sharing the same strength, aggression and leadership qualities as his sometime defensive partner Carles Puyol, life was looking as good for Gaby as his free scoring brother. Then he got injured again.
The recent victory over Inter Milan, now home to Diego, saw Barcelona qualify from Group C, but they need to win in Kiev to make sure they win the group. Kiev, with five points to Barca's eight, still have qualification hopes as Inter and Rubin Kazan, the group's other teams, both have six points. "It's a great chance for us to top the group," said the in-form striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, "but it's going to be a tough game."
Three Barca players have been short listed for 2009 Fifa World Player of the Year, three players who did not cost Barcelona a cent having come through their youth ranks. Lionel Messi - who won the Ballon d'Or last week - is the favourite, with the midfield duo of Andres Iniesta and Xavi also nominated for the award which will be presented in Zurich on December 21. By that time, Barca could have become the first club in football history to win six major trophies in a year.
Gaby Milito has missed out on all the success. Just to play football again will mean as much to him as any of the awards being lavished on Barca's supreme talents. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org Dynamo Kiev v Barcelona, KO 11.45pm, Aljazeera Sport + 5