Unravelling the enigma of football in the post-Soviet republics
The Ukraine Premier League doesn't kick off until tonight but Dynamo Kyiv have already laid down a marker for the title. Last season's runners-up beat their arch rivals Shakhtar Donetsk 3-1 to win the Super Cup earlier this week in Poltava.
And it’s back at the Butovsky Vorskla Stadium later this evening that Vorskla Poltava host newly-promoted Oleksandria to open the 21st edition of the Ukrainian Premier League.
Once again the so-called “big two” are expected to dominate. Despite that loss on Tuesday, SHAKHTAR DONETSK remain the team to beat and Mircea Lucescu has, at least for now, been able to retain the crop of players that achieved so much last season amid persistent rumours linking the likes of Willian and Douglas Costa with moves away from eastern Ukraine.
The wily old Romanian has also strengthened, meaning Shakhtar have the best squad and look better-equipped for the campaign ahead.
Four new faces have arrived; predictably, two of them are young exciting Brazilian attackers in Dentinho and the very un-Brazilian sounding Alan Patrick, but Lucescu has signed two Ukrainians, including the championship’s top scorer from last season.
Yevhen Seleznyov came through the ranks at Shakhtar and it wasn't unusual to see the 25-year-old in the stands at the Donbass Arena; it will be interesting to see where he fits in after a fruitful season with Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in which he scored 17 in 24 games.
Shakhtar may be the bookies’ favourites, but you can’t write off DYNAMO KYIV.
With Yuri Semin back for a second spell as manager they will have more purpose and direction about them than in Valery Gazzaev’s dismal reign; the Super Cup has already shown that when the Bilo-syni are firing on all cylinders they're more than a match for their arch rivals.
Shakhtar have their Brazilians, but Dynamo looked to Africa this summer. Semin spent €8m on Ideye Brown, a Nigerian striker who netted 15 times for Sochaux in Ligue 1 last season, along with compatriot midfielder Lakman Haruna. Returning Senegalese centre-back Pape Diakhaté will be like a new signing, too.
Kyiv and Shakhtar have established hegemony over the Champions League places, although last season METALIST KHARKIV pushed Dynamo all the way for that runners-up spot before finishing as bronze medallists for a fifth successive year.
The experienced Myron Markevich is one of Ukraine’s most talented coaches and he has some good players to work with.
He’ll be hoping young Argentinian forward Jonathan Cristaldo picks up where he left off after finding some form at the end of last season and that Sebastián Blanco recovers from a serious injury to play a big part for Metalist.With an expected resurgence under Semin though it could be that Dynamo once again have too much for them and Metalist may will finish third, depending on what sort of a challenge DNIPRO DNIPROPETROVSK pose.
DP finished fourth last year, but Juande Ramos’ appointment last October was with an eye firmly on breaking the Dynamo-Shakhtar dominance.
Last season was something of a transitional phase for both the Spaniard and his team, but if he can bring it all together then they could shake things up at the top; certainly, usurping Metalist is a very realistic target.
Ramos has had two transfer windows to stamp his authority on the team now and enlarged the playing area at the Dnipro Arena to better suit the style of football he is trying to instil.
Club president Ihor Kolomoisky is Ukraine’s second richest man (after Shakhtar’s Rinat Akhmetov) and more is expected from the club this season.
Five major signings arrived over the winter and big money was spent recently on Derek Boateng, a midfielder who rejected a move to England in favour of Dnipropetrovsk, officially for European football.
€10m brought young Brazilian Giuliano to the club as well. He showed flashes of talent and it’s hoped he’ll become a key player, but in spite of all these new arrivals the one who makes everything tick is Yevhen Konoplyanka, a versatile attacking midfielder key to their success at just 21 years old.
He’s one to keep an eye on.
Money talks in Ukraine, as it does elsewhere, and this quartet of clubs will almost certainly finish the season in the top four positions in some order with KARPATY LVIV looking to cement fifth once again.
Under the Belarussian Aleh Kananaw the club have been making good progress in recent years and on their day can beat anyone in the Premier League; breaking into the top four may just be beyond them though.
With four places looking sealed, one of the more interesting battles this year will be the fight for Europa League football by those below. Unlike in some countries, it’s a competition Ukrainian clubs take seriously; last season, it went right to the final day, when VORSKLA POLTAVA just nicked it.
Mykola Pavlov is a capable manager, but it would be a surprise to see them there again, and Vorskla could struggle with playing two games in a week.
Perhaps the favourites to challenge this year are TAVRIYA SIMFEROPOL. The Crimeans took sixth two seasons ago and also won the Ukrainian Cup, yet failed to build upon that success, so they’ll hope the appointment of Semen Altman can spark a revival and get them back into Europe.
He’s certainly building a decent side. Maksym Kalynychenko and Sergei Nazarenko are two old heads from Dnipro and Volodymyr Yezerskiy from Zorya Luhansk has also arrived to provide experience.
ARSENAL KYIV’s ambitious president Vadim Rabinovich has also told his new manager Leonid Kuchuk, a Belarussian who enjoyed much success in Moldova with Sheriff Tiraspol that his target is Europe and they will be a threat along with METALURH DONETSK.
Eighth position was a disappointment last season. They parted company with their promising Russian manager Andrei Gordeev just eight games into a three-year contract, but have again opted for youth in Vladimir Pyatenko.
One of the main problems for Metalurh was filling the void left by their creative midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan after the Armenian departed for their city rivals Shakhtar and it’s in his homeland where they’ve once again been shopping.
Joining Karlen Mkrtchyan in Donetsk are his countrymen Gevorg Ghazaryan and Marcos Pizzelli, the latter a Brazilian-born, naturalised Armenian attacker.
The surprise package last year were OBOLON KYIV. Serhiy Kovalets’ side will go down in history as being the first to beat Shakhtar at the Donbass Arena – and they also defeated them in Ukraine’s capital – along with taking four points off Dynamo, in spite of having one of the league’s smallest budgets: Obolon also don’t have a single foreign player on their books.
It would be a very tall order to replicate that success though and the Brewers will find themselves towards the lower end of the championship, as will KRYVBAS KRYVYI RIH.
The capture of goalkeeper Denys Boyko on loan from Dynamo looks to be a good signing though and mid-table for Yuriy Maksymov’s side would be considered a success.
ZORYA LUHANSK out in Ukraine’s east were banned from playing games at their Avanhard Stadium after an infamous match against Volyn last year highlighted the deficiencies in the club’s infrastructure and they will likewise finish somewhere in the bottom half of the table.
Shakhtar’s young Brazilian midfielder Bruno Renan is joining the club on loan for the season and keeping Maksym Biliy is a big plus for Zorya though.
ILLYCHIVETS MARIUPIL only survived on the final day of the season after an incredible collapse from Dynamo saw them come from two goals down to win 3-2 and they’ll once again feature several loanees from Shakhtar, including the hugely talented Bohdan Butko. They may just have enough about them to survive, Illychivets.
The versatile Butko spent last season with VOLYN LUTSK, who finished 11th last time, and they should once again retain their Premier League status.
Both the newly-promoted sides will be concerned with establishing a foothold in the division. OLEXSANDRIA from central Ukraine are back in the top flight after an absence of several years and in Volodomyr Sharan they have a young coach who could have his work cut out in keeping them up.
Making an instant return are CHORNOMORETS ODESA, who seem the more likely of the pair to survive.
INITIAL FIXTURES Fri 8 Vorskla Poltava v Oleksandria Sat 9 Illychivets Mariupil v Karpaty Lviv, Kryvbas Kryvyi Rih v Volyn Lutsk, Tavriya Simferopol v Zorya Luhansk Sun 10 Shakhtar Donetsk v Obolon Kyiv, Dynamo Kyiv v Metalist Kharkiv, Chornomorets Odesa v Metalurh Donetsk Mon 11 Arsenal Kyiv v Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk
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