Unravelling the enigma of football in the post-Soviet republics
You have to go back to 1996, when Chornomorets Odesa were silver medallists, for the last time it wasn't Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk occupying the Premier League’s top two positions in one order or the other - and despite a valiant effort from Metalist Kharkiv, this season won’t buck that trend.
On Saturday, Dynamo confirmed themselves as runners-up with a 2-1 win away at Karpaty Lviv, shortly before in Ukraine’s industrial east Shakhtar wrapped up a sixth league title in the Donetsk derby. It hadn’t really been in any doubt.
When the Premier League awoke from its winter hibernation in March, Mircea Lucescu’s side held a commanding 12-point lead over their arch rivals who had faltered in the first half of the season under their now departed Russian coach Valeriy Gazzaev, and it has been more a case of when, not if they would win their fifth championship in seven years.
Few would disagree Shakhtar have played the best football this season, even diehards in Kyiv. They’ve scored 52 times and conceded just 15 in their 28 league games so far and prior to the winter break had lost only lost once, to Obolon Kyiv in a physical encounter that saw Fernandinho suffer a broken leg, while they topped their group in the Champions League.
Shakhtar were denied the opportunity to rub Dynamo’s noses in it by lifting the trophy in Kyiv last weekend after they were beaten 3-0 at the Valeriy Lobanovskiy Stadium.
That defeat serves as a reminder that Ukraine’s most successful side are still a force to be reckoned with and will provide a sterner test next season when Yuri Semin reasserts his authority on the team he left in 2009. There was little chance of an upset at the Donbass Arena, however.
Metalurh Donetsk are a relatively new addition to Ukrainian football, although have finished third on three occasions in the Premier League and notable faces including Yaya Touré, Jordi Cruyff and current Shakhtar midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan have represented them in the past, the latter leaving ,for $7.5 million last summer.
This season hasn’t been a success though, and earlier in the week they’d parted company with their young Russian manager Andrey Gordeev just eight games into a three-year deal after a 5-1 defeat at home to Arsenal Kyiv.
The Donetsk derby pales in significance to Shakhtar’s fixtures with Dynamo. In the 27 league meetings between the pair prior to Saturday, Metalurh had lost 25 of them and drawn the other two.
Defeat number 26 was promptly served up with a Luiz Adriano goal in first half stoppage time and capped by a superb late free-kick from Darijo Srna.
Rihanna flies in this week to perform at their grandiloquent stadium as part of the club’s 75th anniversary celebrations, which football-wise has been a superb year for Shakhtar, both at home and in Europe, where they qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League for the first time.
Lucescu will want to kick on from here, and use the experience gained from the past 12 months to try and take Shakhtar to the next level in Europe and also cut out the hiccups that have followed their Champions League fixtures.
In between their games against Roma, Shakhtar were very fortunate to escape Crimea with all three points against Sevastopol, while after the second leg they lost 1-0 at Karpaty. Upon their return from Camp Nou last month they suffered their first ever defeat at the Donbass Arena to 10-man Obolon, ending the club’s 55-match unbeaten home run and a last-minute winner was required to overcome Tavriya Simferopol after Barcelona beat them in Donetsk.
They will of course strengthen, hopefully at the same time being able to retain their key players and build a side capable of proving this European run was no fluke.
Once again at the weekend Akhmetov affirmed it is his ambition to one day see Shakhtar win the Champions League.
That might sound chimerical, especially after falling so far short against Barcelona in the quarterfinals, but he is an astute president who has been patient and for the most, invested wisely to create Ukraine’s pre-eminent team, on and off the field.
Few could doubt they have the most aesthetically pleasing style in Ukraine; it’s good, attacking football that’s easy on the eye and centred around an attacking quartet of exciting Brazilians stuck on top of an eastern European defensive backline, but it is very “un-Ukrainian”, if you could draw one criticism.
Premier League rules state clubs must start with no more than seven foreign players, while perhaps Lucescu’s optimum first XI contains just that defensive triangle of Andriy Pyatov in goal and the centre-back pairing of Dmytro Chygrynskiy and Yaroslav Rakytskiy, with the possibility of Olexiy Gai in central midfield in place of Shakhtar’s Czech international Tomáš Hübschman.
Recently Metalist’s Brazilian midfielder Edmar, who arrived in Ukraine at Tavriya in the 2003/04 season was naturalised to free up another a space for a foreigner and it’s a practice not uncommon in Russia.
There was talk of playmaker Jádson following suit, but his call up to the Brazilian national team has scuppered that, leaving Shakhtar’s hierarchy bemoaning the fact they call a player “foreign” who is in his seventh season at the club.
They do have some talented youngsters though and for all the condemnation of being “un-Ukrainian”, Akhmetov’s patient approach must again be commended.
Considerable investment has been made in the long-term future of Shakhtar and in the club’s academy, whose under-21 side won the youth championship with a 5-1 victory in their own Donetsk derby against Metalurh. There was just one Brazilian in that side, 20-year-old midfielder Bruno. For the first team, the season isn't over quite yet though.
There's a cup semi-final against Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk this coming Wednesday, a club themselves with a wealthy owner in Ihor Kolomoisky, second only to Akhmetov in Ukraine’s rich list who has recruited Juande Ramos to challenge the big two’s hegemony over the Champions League places.
Win that, and there’s the possibility of a grudge match against Dynamo in the final on May 25 if Semin’s side overcome Arsenal in the Kyiv derby.
Semin will want some silverware in his first season back at the club, while Shakhtar want revenge for that thumping defeat in Kyiv, and what better way than by winning the double in Sumy?
1. Don't wish for a fairytale start While romantics may hope Stoke break the deadlock to bring the
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