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Ukraine-Russia crisis

'No war in Ukraine' - Atalanta ace Malinovskyi still scoring goals while making strong political statements

8:00 pm AEDT 10/3/22
Ruslan Malinovksyi Atalanta Olympiakos Europa League 2021-22
The Ukrainian has somehow managed to continue excelling in Serie A and the Europa League despite being enraged by what's happening in his homeland

February 24 was a terrible day for Ruslan Malinovskyi, with Russia beginning its invasion of his native Ukraine – and yet he somehow had the strength to perform brilliantly on the pitch. 

The attacking midfielder scored a couple of magnificent goals as Atalanta thrashed Olympiakos 3-0 in Piraeus to seal a place in the last 16 of the Europa League.

His second strike, a trademark shot from distance into the top corner, was especially beautiful.

Malinovskyi's left foot is very well known in Italy – adored by football lovers and deeply hated by goalkeepers. 

Just ask Juventus No.1 Wojciech Szczesny, who was beaten by a typically thunderous effort from the Ukrainian in last month’s Serie A clash in Bergamo. 

It was the third season in a row that Malinovskyi had scored against the Pole.

He’s certainly a man for the big occasion, having also netted in a 2-2 draw with Inter at San Siro earlier this season, as well as a 3-2 win at Napoli. 

Whenever he is on the pitch, shots fly with precision from any distance, and one could argue that Malinovskyi is the best long-range shooter in the world right now.

The secret behind this quality is quite extraordinary. 

When asked about his shooting technique by Gazzetta dello Sport last year, he explained: "It's a bit of a natural gift, but an injury helped me a lot.”

Indeed, after tearing cruciate ligaments in 2016, Malinovskyi worked a lot on strengthening his injured knee during his rehabilitation, and shooting from long distances was one of the best ways to do so. 

He essentially took a dreadful experience that could have destroyed his career and used it in his favour.

Such strength of character enabled Malinovskyi to overcome numerous obstacles throughout his career. 

As a youngster, he wasn't rated highly enough at the Shakhtar Donetsk academy to break into the senior squad, particularly as first-team coach Mircea Lucescu preferred Brazilians in offensive roles.

Thus, Malinovskyi was loaned out to lesser teams, and became prominent for Zorya Luhansk, then coached by Yuri Verndub, who famously defeated Real Madrid with Sheriff Tiraspol this season before joining the Ukrainian army when the war started. 

Vernidub, a straight-talking specialist who loves working with underrated youngsters, helped Malinovskyi to make major progress as a playmaker. 

His vision and passing range improved massively, but instead of waiting for his chance at Shakhtar, the prodigy chose to move to Belgium at the age of 21.

That was an unorthodox idea, but Genk believed in him. Following a loan spell, they purchased Malinovskyi, despite the aforementioned knee problems. 

The midfielder flourished, and led the team to the sensational title triumph in 2018-19, scoring 16 goals and providing 16 assists in the process.

That's when Atalanta came calling, even though the coach Gian Piero Gasperini wasn't the main man behind the transfer and had to be convinced of his merits.

However, Lucescu, who once coached fierce regional rivals Brescia, was by that stage in no doubt that Malinovskyi would excel in Serie A. 

"Ruslan is a superb acquisition for Atalanta,” the Romanian told Calciomercato.com. “He is a clever and physically strong midfielder with brilliant passing and shooting. 

“He was still a kid when I coached him, but matured and became a man. You should expect a lot of goals and assists from him in Italy.”

Atalanta have been outperforming for several years now thanks to numerous players who were purchased at relatively low prices, but Malinovskyi stands out even amongst them. 

Mentally strong, he is capable of making the difference when coming off the bench – indeed, he netted all of his goals against Juventus as a substitute and Malinovskyi was mainly used off the bench in his first Serie A season.

However, he still managed to score eight goals and provide five assists, and fans took him to their hearts. 

Last term, he netted eight times again in Serie A, and provided a league-high 12 assists.

It remains a mystery why this exceptional achievement wasn't celebrated, and why he wasn't described as Ukraine's major star ahead of Euro 2020. 

Sadly for the national team, Malinovskyi wasn't fully fit last summer, and thus couldn't perform at his best level, eventually missing the quarter-final fixture against England in Rome through injury.

He is back to his best in Bergamo, though, and manages to shine even when things aren’t going smoothly for the club, who were eliminated from the Champions League at the group stage, and have won just 10 points from the last 10 league fixtures.

"Ruslan has been an important player ever since he arrived, and he makes brilliant contributions these days when the team is in a difficult period," local journalist Filippo Maggi tells GOAL.

"Fans definitely love him, and he should be getting more time on the pitch."

For Malinovskyi, Atalanta's form could be an afterthought considering the desperate situation in his homeland. 

He is active on his social media accounts, sharing photos of bombed cities and villages and demanding the atrocities to stop.

The war only makes his motivation higher on the pitch, as he celebrates his goals sending strong political messages such as 'No War in Ukraine'.

However, it hasn’t ruined his friendship with Atalanta's Russian midfielder Aleksey Miranchuk. As the club's general director Umberto Marino said, "this is an example of how things should be".

Both stars could feature on Thursday night as Atalanta take on Bayer Leverkusen in what promises to be a feast of high tempo attacking football and the hope will be that Malinovskyi can once again find the strength to perform at his best in what are tough times for the Ukrainian and his people.