It's not just that whoever wins over two legs will be Ukraine's first representatives in a European final since the fragmentation of the USSR; it's that whoever loses will have to endure their closest rivals claiming to be Ukraine's pre-eminent team.
The story of Dynamo's rivalry with Shakhtar is the story of modern Ukrainian football; to an extent, it is the story of modern Ukraine, as the regions have risen to challenge the capital.
Thanks to the patronage of the Ukrainian Communist Party, Dynamo were always the dominant Ukrainian side in the USSR. "In those days," the former Dynamo player and coach Josef Szabo said, "it was like a pyramid, with Dynamo at the top.
The patron of the club was [the late leader of the Ukrainian Communist Party] Volodymyr Scherbytskyi. He was a big football fan, and if there was a great player at Shakhtar or Dnipro or some other Ukrainian club, he made one phone call and the player would be in Kyiv – no money or anything like that."
Accordingly, after Tavriya Simferapol had won the first league title after independence, Dynamo won the next nine. They were starting with the best squad and they were wealthier than anybody else, having attracted backers keen to take advantage of tax breaks enjoyed by sporting institutions.
At the end of the 1993-94 season, for instance, after being pushed hard by Dnipro, they signed four of their players.
They also enjoyed the fruits of the best state-run academy. The last generation to pass through it was highly gifted, featuring the likes of Andriy Shevchenko, Serhiy Rebrov, Oleh Luzhny and Vladyslav Vashchuk, and Valeriy Lobanovskyi lead them to the semi-final of the Champions League in 1999, in which they at one stage led Bayern Munich 3-1. Bayern, though, came back to win, and that was as good as it got for Lobanovskyi's third great Dynamo side.
Shakhtar, meanwhile, were building. Their president Oleksandr Bragin was killed in a bomb attack at the ground in 1996, and was eventually succeeded by his right-hand man, Rinat Akhmetov, who had missed the bombing after being held up in traffic.
He invested heavily, both in players and in a superb training complex which, with its luxurious rooms, aviary and fishing lake, provides an understandable lure for players who may otherwise be reluctant to move to an industrial city in the heart of Ukraine's coal-mining region.
For all Akhmetov's wealth – a study in 2007 named him as Europe's richest man, although he has almost certainly slipped back since then – that mining heritage is still central to Shakhtar's self-image.
The word Shakhtar itself means "Miner". The new crest, adopted last year, features a flame and a pair of crossed hammers. Their combination of orange shirt and black shorts supposedly represents the experience of a miner leaving the dark of the pit for the bright of the day.
Like many industrial areas, the Donbass has an intense regional pride, and Shakhtar plays a key part in that identity. They regularly had the highest average attendances in Soviet times, and still average more than Dynamo.
"The people work very hard and they need football," said their coach, Mircea Lucescu. "It has a social role beyond sport. Akhmetov is spending his money for all the people." The new stadium, which should be ready for the start of next season, will be set in an extensive park to provide recreational space for all of Donetsk.
As Shakhtar invested in the late nineties, so Dynamo began to resent them. Their vice-president, Serhiy Polkhovskyi, compared them to Rastignac, the ambitious youth created by Balzac who first appears in Pere Goriot.
When I relayed that description to his Shakhtar counterpart, Mark Levytsky, he snorted. "Let them read Balzac," he said with a dismissive waft of his arm. "We will concentrate on football." Typical Kyivans, he seemed to be suggesting, with their laboratories and their computer-modelled training programmes, always over-intellectualising.
Even the club song, after eulogising miners leaving the pits to watch the team, contains a snide reference to the fact that "not only students with books are waiting for Shakhtar's victory".
As Shakhtar rose, so Dynamo stumbled. After the defeat to Bayern Munich, Shevchenko and numerous others left. Without state funding, it turned out, the academy was no longer churning out gifted players who conformed to the Lobanovskyi template.
Dynamo, like many others in eastern Europe, brought in foreigners to fill the gap, only to find them unwilling to submit to Lobanovskyi's demands. Local players, benefiting from a new freedom of movement, similarly grew resistant to Lobanovskyi's authoritarian method. "He had internal torments," said Polkhosvkyi.
"Previously a word, a glance, was enough to assert his authority and explain what he wanted. Maybe it was typical of the Communist system, but now players have a greater freedom and an individuality. They become stars and so they do not put the team first."
Lobanovskyi didn't live to see Shakhtar lift the title, but it was only a month away when he collapsed in the dug-out at Zaporyzhzhya, suffering a stroke from which he never recovered. Lobanovskyi's assistant, Oleksiy Mykhailychenko, replaced him and went on to win two titles, but the sense of invincibility was gone and Shakhtar have won three of the last four titles.
Dynamo, it seemed, were stuck in an endless cycle of trying to replicate Lobanovskyi's success. Mykhailychenko was dismissed early in the 2004-05 season following a 2-0 home defeat to Shakhtar – their first home defeat by two goals since fragmentation – after which a succession of other former Lobaonvskyi players - Szabo, Leonid Buryak, Anatoliy Demyanenko and Oleh Luzhny – succeeded him.
All seemed terrified of deviating from Lobanovskyi's model, as though they were always asking themselves, as Szabo openly admitted doing, "What would Valeriy Vasylyovich have done?"
The problem – even leaving aside the problems Lobanovskyi had in the final months - was that he had always evolved. It's impossible to know what – if any – solutions he may have come up with, but what is sure is that he wouldn't have kept trying to apply the 2002 model.
Last year, at last, came a break with the appointment of the Muscovite Yuri Semin, who had no direct connection to either Dynamo or Lobanovskyi. Dynamo currently lie 12 points clear at the top of the table.
In four meetings since Semin took charge, though, Dynamo are yet to beat Shakhtar: they lost 2-0 in the cup final, 1-0 in the league, and drew in both the Super Cup and the Channel One Cup, losing the former and winning the latter on penalties. "We don't have to prove we're the best team in Ukraine," said the Dynamo president Ihor Surkis. "We've proved that already in the league." Well, yes they have, but he must know that this game, whatever happens, will be etched into history, standing bold as another league title fades in the memory.
It is easy to be cynical about oligarchal involvement in clubs, but in this case at least it is clear that both Akhmetov and Surkis care. Akhmetov may not have been much of a fan when he took over, but these days he becomes so nervous during big games that he regularly leaves the stadium. Surkis has his own way of coping with the tension.
"The team has risen so high that I had to start smoking again," he said. "It destroys my health." It's a sign of how comfortable they were against PSG in the quarter-final that Surkis claims not to have touched a cigarette in the second half of the second leg.
It's hard to believe, though, that he will not be puffing away tonight, as Akhmetov paces the car-park. This is Dynamo's biggest game in a decade; it's probably Shakhtar's biggest ever.
Source: Guardian News