Unravelling the enigma of football in the post-Soviet republics
It wasn't supposed to be like this for Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk; not this season.
Ahead of his first full Premier League campaign in Ukraine, a bullish Juande Ramos had once again spoken of the club’s ambitious plans to end Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv’s dominance.
Not since Chornomorets Odesa were runners-up in 1996 has any other team finished in the top two.
Even below them, Metalist Kharkiv have been bronze medallists for fives years on the bounce, but Dnipro were just four points behind Myron Markevych’s side last season and this was supposed to be when it all came together.
After all, Ramos has spent a considerable amount of money since succeeding Volodymyr Bessonov in October 2010.
With two-thirds of the season played though Dnipro are fourth and, more significantly, Metalist in third place have what is surely an insurmountable 14-point lead over them. Now, the natives are getting restless.
"Ramo$ go home", read one banner at the Dnipro Arena during a game against Tavriya Simferopol; another in Spanish compared his wages (rumoured to be €4 million a year) to those of the then Volyn Lutsk manager Vitaliy Kvartsyanyi following a surprise home defeat.
And upon returning from a 2-0 loss against Zorya Luhansk an angry group confronted him at the airport demanding he resign.
It isn't easy for a foreign coach to succeed in eastern Europe – something Ramos knows all too well from his brief period at CSKA Moscow a couple of years ago – they need to be familiar with the intricacies of the game.
But the refereeing scandals, dogovornyak (a match-fixing practice from Soviet times), oligarch rivalries and the standard of pitches are all issues to be discussed elsewhere.
Shouldering the blame
The former Sevilla and Tottenham Hotspur manager must shoulder much of the blame for Dnipro’s woes.
His constant tinkering to the starting line-up has fostered an inconsistency and rarely have they managed back-to-back wins. Ramos has cited injuries as a mitigating circumstance and, to an extent, he is correct.
Most notably, losing his captain and best central defender Andriy Rusol, who was forced to retire at the age of just 28 after failing to recover from a back problem has been a real hammer blow.
It was a position that required strengthening even before the Ukrainian international called time on his career though.
Only seven teams have a worse defensive record than Dnipro this season, but the arrival of Ondřej Mazuch from Anderlecht should help plug a back four that has conceded 25 goals in 20 matches.
Already that figure is five higher than in the whole of the previous campaign and there are still 10 rounds remaining.
One question fans will surely be asking themselves is why Eric Matoukou, a championship-winning defender with Belgian side Genk last year, was signed in the summer and then promptly farmed out to Arsenal Kyiv.
Indeed, there has been much criticism of Ramos’ dealings in the transfer market. In the past Dnipro were a club usually relying Ukrainians, or those from the former Soviet republics and eastern Europe, so in many ways his arrival denoted a new era.
With a coach of Ramos’ standing, it was hoped they would be able to attract a higher calibre of player from further afield.
It’s debatable whether there is a coherent policy in place. Ghanaian right-back Samuel Inkoom has come in for the bulk of the criticism and many would consider the €5.3 million signing from Swiss champions Basle to be the league’s worst newbie.
A dubious honour
His team-mate Giuliano surely runs him a close second for that dubious honour. A year ago Dnipro parted with a club-record €11 million for the Brazilian.
Giuliano – voted best player of the 2010 Copa Libertadores – has also been unable to adapt and the 21-year-old playmaker is yet to provide a single assist this season. With just one goal to his name, already he is being linked with a return home.
Ramos also paid a hefty sum for Metalist winger Denys Oliynyk, but his position is arguably where Dnipro’s most talented midfielder Yevhen Konoplyanka operates best from.
A quick, technically gifted player superb with the ball at his feet, England fans will soon discover at Euro 2012 that the 22-year-old is a real menace cutting in from the left on to his right foot.
Off the pitch, rumours persist about Ramos’ relationship with the club’s hierarchy. Over the winter break a friendly against Cracovia Kraków was cancelled at short notice, apparently after a clash between him and Dnipro’s general director Andriy Stetsenko. For their part, it is something they both deny.
Just last week, however, reports suggested that Ramos had issued an ultimatum to Stetsenko demanding a meeting with the club’s Swiss-based billionaire owner Ihor Kolomoisky regarding transfer policy.
On the plus side, the acquisition of Derek Boateng from Getafe, who chose Dnipro ahead of clubs in England has looked a shrewd one, with the tough-tackling Ghanaian adding some much-needed bite to the heart of midfield.
Another area Ramos has done well to fill is the void left by striker Yevhen Seleznyov. Dnipro’s top scorer in each of the last two seasons returned to his boyhood club Shakhtar over the summer, leaving many wondering where the goals would come from.
Nikola Kalinić scored just seven times in 44 Premier League appearances for Blackburn Rovers; already he has nine goals from 12 matches at Dnipro.
This weekend the league returns from its winter break, but realistically it won’t get any better than fourth this season.
Challenging Metalist for the bronze medal would have been the bare minimum expected from Dnipro, so it remains to be seen just what the outcome will be if there is no tangible sign of improvement. Just four points separate them and Metalurh Donetsk in eighth.
How Ramos could do with a convincing performance against Shakhtar at the Donbass Arena on Sunday to kick-start a strong finish.
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