The UPL returned over the weekend after a three month-long break. The extended vacation period was not particularly kind to Ukrainian teams playing in Europe; all three representatives of the UPL were knocked out in the round of 32 in the Europa League. Only Shakhtar Donetsk remains in contention for continental glory after drawing Borussia Dortmund 2-2 in the opening leg of their Champions League round of 16 tie.
Shakhtar, who had opened up an unassailable 13 point lead at the top of the table in the opening half of the season, continued their relentless assault toward a 4th straight league title with a 4-1 hammering Volyn Lutsk on Friday night. Shakhtar will not be pleased at giving up a goal at home and were at times shaky in defense, but their attack continues to roll over all opposition. They took the lead in the 10th minute via an own goal from Volyn defender Oleh Shandruk and doubled their advantage just four minutes later through a Kucher header from a corner. Volyn’s Romanian midfielder Eric Bicfalvi brought the visitors to within a goal in the 52nd, but Shakhtar restored their two goal advantage soon after when Douglas Costa struck from close range. Eduardo’s goal deep into injury time made it 4-1, but the result was at that point beyond doubt. Shakhtar continue their wonderful form from the first half of the season and have still dropped points in just one match, a shock defeat to Arsenal Kyiv in November. Volyn, meanwhile, look set for a season of purgatory: safe from relegation, but beyond the reach of the European spots.
Dnipro, who were eliminated from the Europe League by FC Basel last month, recorded an impressive 3-0 victory over Arsenal Kyiv at home. Arsenal have been an unpredictable team this season. They are the only team to have taken points from Shakhtar this season and they drew with Dnipro in the opposite fixture in Kyiv last season. But on this night, they were totally outplayed. Dnipro were without injured star winger Yevhen Konoplyanka, but his absence was hardly felt in a dominating performance. Ukrainian national team forward Roman Zozulya gave the home side in the 19th minute, taking advantage of a mix-up in the penalty area to head the ball home. Dnipro were granted a penalty in the 50th minute after Zozulya was brought down in the box, and it was dispatched nonchalantly by Matheus to double the home side’s advantage. Artem Fedetskiy put Dnipro out of sight in the 68th with a fierce strike under the bar. Dnipro remain in second place, and although the league title is beyond their grasp, the are in the midst of a three-way battle for the coveted final Champions League spot, awarded to the team in 2nd place. Arsenal, meanwhile, are mired in 10th spot.
Metalist Kharkiv, another team in contention for the final Champions League spot, kept pace with Dnipro but were made to sweat as they almost blew a 3-0 lead against Metalurh Donetsk. Metalist, who had also just been knocked out of the Europea League, took the lead on the stroke of halftime. A Metalurh giveaway in the middle led to a quick Metalist counterattack finished off by Brazilian midfielder Marlos. Metalurh defender Mykola Morozyuk put the ball in his own net, and Marco Devic finished off another brilliant counterattacking move to give Metalist a three goal advantage. But this would not be an easy three points for the home side. Junior Moraes scored twice, in the 79th and 89th minutes, to bring Metlaurh within a goal. Metalist were struggling at this point, but were let off the hook when Moraes blew a fantastic chance to equalize in the last minute of stoppage time. Three hard-fought points for Metalist, as they remain two points back of Dnipro in third place.
Dynamo Kyiv, the traditional powerhouse of Ukrainian football, have struggled mightily in the first half of the season and have found themselves well of the pace of traditional rivals Shakhtar Donetsk. Dynamo were humiliated by Shakhtar in both the league and cup, changed their manager, knocked out of both the Champions League and the Europa League, and are now mired in a struggle to even return back to the Champions League. Their first match back from the break was not a promising one. Dynamo drew 1-1 with Kryvbas and now trail Dnipro by three points. Nigerian midfielder Lukman Haruna gave Dynamo the lead in the 47th minute, but Kryvbas responded well and got their equalizer in the 72nd minute through Volodymyr Priyomov. The same problems were evident for Dynamo: poor integration of new signings, stale and predictable tactics, and defensive breakdowns. One gets the feeling that the team have been in crisis all year, and considering the investment Ihor Surkis put into the club over the summer, a finish outside of the top two is likely to have severe ramifications.
Outside the top four, Illichivets Mariupol defeated cellar-dwellers Metalurh Zaporizhya thanks to a strike on the stroke of halftime from Ruslan Fomin. Illichivets remain in 7th place, while Metalurh look destined for relegation, as they are now an astounding 17 points from safety with just 3 points from 19 matches. Karpaty Lviv rose to 11th place and leapfrogged their opponents, Tavriya Simpferopol with an impressive 2-0 victory on the road. Sergey Zenjov and on-loan striker Oleksandr Hladkyi scored for the visitors.
Zorya Luhansk defeated Hoverla Uzhhorod 2-1 at home thanks to goals from Lucky Idahor and Vitaliy Vernydub. Volodymyr Lysenko got the lone goal for the visitors, who look set for a quick return back to the Ukrainian First League. After getting promoted last season, Hoverla are now nine points from safety and barring a great escape will likely get sent straight back down. Chornomorets Odessa solidified their grasp on the final Europa League place with a 1-0 victory over Vorskla Poltava. Leo Matos scored for the home side, who are now seven points clear of the nearest challenger for 5th position, which guarantees entry into the second qualifying round of the next edition of the UEFA Europa League.
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