Tuesday night brings a top of the table clash in Group D of the Champions League on Paramount+ but perhaps not the one people expected. In one corner, the most illustrious club in European football, the 13 time champions of the continent whose hall of fame is a who's who of the sport. Set against them, a relative minnow from a footballing backwater, playing their second game at this competition. While Real Madrid's star player might be Karim Benzema, David Alaba or Luka Modric, Sheriff Tiraspol's is Adama Traore.
Naturally and rightly, much of the conversation around Sheriff has revolved around the disparity between them and their rivals in the Moldovan league, where they exist as something akin to a branding exercise for the pro-Russian separatist movement in Transinistra and the conglomerate from which the club takes its name, one that effectively runs the region such is the array of industries in which it is involved, from mobile phones and supermarkets to bread factories and a television station. This is no fairytale for the sport in the region.
Equally, those realties have at times obscured the on-field achievements of this ferociously fun addition to the European footballing landscape. A squad brought together from Luxembourg, Mali, Uzbekistan and Niger have coalesced into an extremely effective team under Yuriy Vernydub, one that knows exactly how they can beat more illustrious European opponents.
Their wins over Dinamo Zagreb in the play offs and Shakhtar Donetsk in their first ever Champions League group stage match were, in purely footballing terms, impressive counterattacking displays. The plan looked to be simple: sit deep in numbers, wait, and when the opponent misplaced a pass fly forwards.
It does not sound all that remarkable but in practice it was nothing more or less than invigoratingly fun football. Rigid defense morphed into explosive moves up the field that one moment might appear to be scripted to the nth degree before flipping to improvisational bursts between forwards who seemed to know the exact positioning of every player on the field. When it came off it was a joy to watch and a herculean task to stop.
One moment Traore is in the defensive midfielder position to clear a long pass aimed out to the left channel as Dinamo Zagreb chase the goal that might have turned a game in which they were trailing 2-0. The moment he does so the Mali international, the star of Sheriff's victories in the competition so far, bursts into a sprint taking him down the right channel. He is not alone. When the ball comes to Luvannor, who played all of nine games between arriving in July and moving to Saudi Arabia the following month, his team mates know that it is the time to bust a gut to get forward.
On this occasion they execute their counter with aplomb as the Brazilian-born Moldova international waits until the right moment to slip in a through ball that unleashes his No.9 into the space behind the Dinamo defense. Traore's finishing in that tie -- and indeed throughout this season -- has been nothing if not spectacular and on this occasion the 26 year old drove low through the legs of Dominik Livakovic. All this in just nine seconds.
Luvannor's transitory spell in Transinistra reflects a squad that rarely sticks together for long. Their longest serving player, Cristiano, joined in 2018. Traore arrived in February. Should he prove to be a success it will not be long before he moves on. Little wonder. He is almost as rapid as his namesake and looks to be far more proficient in front of goal.
His volley against Shakhtar Donetsk, hooking a Cristiano cross from almost behind him into Andriy Pyatov's net, was the sort to catch the attention of scouts across Europe. Almost as impressive as the goal itself was how Sheriff dealt with their lead. From that moment on Sheriff were out passed by 454 to 131. Shakhtar had 29 touches in their box, 277 in their attacking third. Shakhtar's pass network has every play bar the goalkeeper and center back Marlon in the opposition half. The heatmap looks like a bomb went off on the edge of the Moldovan's attacking third.
And yet Shakhtar were able to translate their territorial dominance into 19 shots worth a combined 0.82xG. Not one of them was worth more than 0.09xG. In other words, not once did Sheriff's visitors have an effort on goal that would go in one time out of every 10. Six of the shots were blocked by defenders. The three that hit the target were from outside the box or just inside it.
According to Opta data, attacking sequences that ended in a shot for Shakhtar took an average of six passes (twice as long as for Sheriff) and move 0.94 meters towards goal per second (more than three times slower than Sheriff). By way of comparison, the average attacking sequence that ended in a goal in last seasons Champions League moved more than twice as fast and took half as many passes. As Vernydub's side have charged up the field in their own attacks they have forced their opponents into agonizing progress towards the other end of the pitch.
The 4-1-4-1 in which they defend saw Sheriff largely look to man mark their opponents in the win against Shakhtar, challenging the opposition center backs either to go long or to advance the ball themselves. Both approaches would leave the visitors vulnerable to a Traore-led counter.
To what extent this approach will work against Real Madrid remains up for debate. Give up possession to them at your peril, Luka Modric and company will have a confidence to play the ball to tightly marked players that Shakhtar perhaps did not. If Carlo Ancelotti's side have the same territory afforded to them they will probably work better shooting opportunities. That said, if they leave the slightest gap while creating those opportunities, Traore and co. are ready and waiting for their opportunity to shock the world.