Unravelling the enigma of football in the post-Soviet republics
When Juande Ramos popped up in eastern Ukraine last October to replace Volodymyr Bessonov as manager of Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, there was a renewed hope of establishing a third way. A way of breaking that long-standing duopoly in the Premier League and finally usurping the “big two”.
Tavriya Simferopol may have won the inaugural post-independence championship after the fragmentation of the Soviet Union in 1992, but every other league title since has gone to either Dynamo Kyiv (13) or Shakhtar Donetsk (six). The last side to oust the pair from the division’s top two positions was Chornomorets Odesa some 15 years ago.
Even below them, Metalist Kharkiv have been bronze medallists five years on the trot.
The Spaniard is in the middle of his second transfer window at Dnipro though, and having been given considerable funds with which to stamp his authority on the team, greater things are expected than the fourth-place finish of the previous campaign.
Ramos – previously coach of such sides as Sevilla, Tottenham Hotspur and for a short time Real Madrid - also ordered the pitch at their stunning 31,000-capacity Dnipro Arena to be enlarged in the offseason to better suit the style of football he is trying to instil.
So things, it seems, are finally coming together at Dnipro.
That they have emerged as a viable contender to challenge Shakhtar and Dynamo’s hegemony is no surprise, however.
Dnipro twice won the Soviet Top League in the eighties and under the tutelage of Yevhen Kucherevskiy and later Oleh Protasov became a force in the Ukrainian Premier League.
Not once in the past decade have the club finished outside the top six.
Their owner is Ihor Kolomoisky, an influential businessman and native of Dnipropetrovsk. He was second only to Shakhtar president Rinat Akhmetov in Ukraine’s rich list last year, with an estimated fortune of $6.243 billion. Yet in the past he has generally shied away from the big transfers.
Traditionally, Dnipro have been a team renowned for its strong Ukrainian core, so in some respects the appointment of Ramos denotes a new era for the club.
The 56-year-old still has a strong reputation in Europe – despite the difficulties of his last few months at Tottenham - and his arrival has helped to attract a calibre of player that perhaps wouldn't have been possible with an Eastern European coach in charge, even with a lucrative contract being dangled in front of them.
Accordingly, Ramos’ first five signings over the winter were all foreign.
Premier League rules dictate his starting line-up must contain at least four Ukrainians though and Ramos has been active in the local market, most recently buying midfielder Denys Oliynyk from Dnipro’s rival’s Metalist for a considerable amount.
A 3-3 draw in their opening game of the new season against Arsenal Kyiv revealed the need for a centre-back.
He’s also looking for a striker to fill the void left by Yevhen Seleznyov.
The 25-year-old was Dnipro’s top scorer in each of the past two seasons, but has returned to his boyhood club Shakhtar and in spite of options up front the Ukrainian international will be sorely missed.
Matheus’ impact after joining from Braga has been curtailed by injury, Oleksandr Hladkiy hasn’t hit it off at Dnipro since a big-money move from Shakhtar and young forward Roman Zozulya isn't yet ready to lead the line.
Ramos also has Alexei Antonov, a striker with a decent record last year at Illychivets Mariupil who actually scored twice in that draw at Arsenal, yet he’s unlikely to be the one to spearhead Dnipro’s efforts to dislodge Dynamo and Shakhtar from the Champions League places.
Their real strength lies in midfield. Ramos’ marquee signing during the winter break was the €10 million purchase of Giuliano, a gifted Brazilian who won the Copa Libertadores last year and although the 21-year-old is yet to score for Dnipro he has nevertheless proved himself a talented individual.
With half a season already under his belt in Ukraine it’s hoped Giuliano will realise his potential and justify that such a hefty transfer fee.
There will also be more bite in the centre of midfield with Derek Boateng after the Ghanaian international rejected a move to Dnipro in favour of the English Premier League.
Key though isn’t one of Ramos’ new arrivals, but rather a young Ukrainian: Yevhen Konoplyanka.
A versatile, attack-minded midfielder, the 21-year-old is an integral part of the side and when he doesn’t play, Dnipro aren’t the same.
Konoplyanka failed to light up the European Under-21 Championships recently like some predicted he would, but nevertheless he’s taken over the mantle of chief playmaker at Dnipro.
Last season constituted something of a learning curve for Ramos.
One Ukrainian publication used the succinct heading “perestroika”, a Russian word synonymous with the Mikhail Gorbachev era that literally means “restructuring” while assessing Dnipro and their manager’s performance. And while the title is perhaps beyond them this year, certainly usurping Metalist isn't.
Shakhtar look well and truly ensconced in the Champions League places and Dynamo will be resurgent under Yuri Semin but the battle for third went down to the wire in the previous campaign.
If everything comes together though, if the side gels and plays as a team under Ramos then maybe, just maybe, the big two’s duopoly could be broken at long last.
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