Shakhtar Donetsk are on the verge of fourth straight league title following yet another victory, but there is still plenty of drama to be had as the race for the Champions League heats up and Hoverla dream of an unlikely great escape.
Shakhtar are now just two points away from clinching the league, and with six matches remaining their coronation is all but a formality. But their 3-0 home victory over Zorya Luhansk on the weekend was not as straightforward as the result makes it seem. Shakhtar manager Mircea Lucescu opted to make significant changes from the squad that emerged victorious in last week’s derby; seven of the starters from that side were left on the bench on the weekend. Shakhtar dominated proceedings but could not break through Zorya’s determined defense until ten minutes from time, when defender Serhiy Kryvtsvov headed in a corner. In the 89th minute league leading goalscorer Henrikh Mkhitaryan (pictured above) added to his tally by finishing off a swift counterattacking move as Zorya were caught out searching for an equalizer. The Armenian sensation now has 22 goals on the season, equaling the record set by Serhiy Rebrov in 1997-98 and Maksim Shatskikh in 2002-03. He will have plenty of chances to break that record in the coming weeks, an incredible achievement for the midfielder. Luiz Gustavo then made it 3-0 in stoppage time, and Shakhtar continue their unbelievable season. Seventeen points separate them from second place Metalist. Zorya are now in 9th place on 30 points.
Metalist Kharkiv held on to the all important second spot with an impressive 4-1 road victory over Vorskla Poltava that was marked by refereeing errors. Christian Villagra gave Metalist the lead in controversial circumstances in the 23rd minute. His Argentinian compatriot Sebastián Blanco remained on the ground after a foul and appeared to be injured, but instead quickly got up and played the free kick without the referee’s whistle. His free kick found Villagra, who miskicked his attempted cross, yet still managed to find the back of the net! Vorksla were furious, but two minutes later they also benefited from some dubious decisions. Blanco was sent off for handling the ball and Vorskla were given a penalty, but the ball had already appeared to cross the line. Nevertheless, the decision stood and Yevhen Budnik put away the spot kick to level the score. Metalist, rather than collapse, looked invigorated by the decision. Despite playing with 10 men for the majority of the match they thoroughly dominated the hosts and got goals from Cristaldo, Santos and Xavier. Metalist remain two points clear of Dynamo in the race for Champions League football, and this match demonstrated their determination to earn a bid to Europe’s elite competition.
Dnipro got back to winning ways, showing their resilience after coming back from behind at Chornomorets Odessa. Dnipro had taken just one point in their last three matches, dropping from 2nd to 4th during the poor run of form. They were aided by the returns into the starting eleven of Roman Zozulya and Yevhen Konoplyanka. Chornomorets were given the lead by their Ivorian striker Franck Dja Djédjé in the 37th and were up at half time. In the 53rd minute Konoplyanka’s brilliant cross to the far post found Matheus, who made it 1-1 with a close range finish. Konoplyanka set up the second goal with another cross from the left flank. This time the recipient was Zozulya, whose initial effort was blocked but managed to beat the keeper while on the ground. Dnipro remain in 4th place, but keep pace with the other sides in the race for second spot.
Dynamo Kyiv, the other team vying for Champions League football, defeated Karpaty 1-0 in Lviv and remain in third, two points behind Metalist and two clear of Dnipro. Their leading scorer Ideye Brown’s 64th minute strike was enough to take all three points. The next few weeks will be crucial in determining if Dynamo get a chance to return to the Champions League or will have to settle for an appearance in the Europa League. They play Dnipro in Week 26 and Metalist in Week 27, while Metalist and Dnipro face off on the penultimate matchday, all matches with massive implications in the race for 2nd. Karpaty, meanwhile, are third from bottom, although still five clear of the drop zone.
That five point gap between Karpaty and the relegation spots is getting dangerously small. Hoverla Uzhhorod, the team that sit below them in the table, defeated Metalurh Zaporizhia 2-0, the first time all season that they’ve won consecutive matches. Just three weeks ago the gap between Hoverla and safety was twelve points and they looked destined for a return to the First League. But they have two wins and a draw in their last three matches, while Karpaty have lost three in succession. A Great Escape scenario may be on here, as suddenly the five point gap with six matches to play does not seem insurmountable. The same cannot be said for Metalurh, who lie dead last with five points and will most likely be mathematically relegated next week. Seven months into the season and they are still winless.
In the other matches, Kryvbas Kryvyi Rih picked up a 2-0 victory over Tavriya Simferopol to continue their excellent run of form and remain in contention for a Europa League spot. Their performances in recent weeks have been all the more impressive considering that the club has been unable to pay the players’ wages. Arsenal Kyiv, another team with financial struggles, lost 2-0 at home to Metalurh Donetsk. Arsenal have now failed to win in eight straight UPL matches, their last victory coming in November against Shakhtar. In Friday’s only match Illichivets Mariupol’ defeat Volyn Lutsk 2-0 on the road, extending Volyn’s winless streak to seven matches.
Volyn Lutsk 0-2 Illichivets Mariupol
Chornomorets Odessa 1-2 Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk
Kryvbas Kryvyi Rih 2-0 Tavriya Simferopol
Shakhtar Donetsk 3-0 Zorya Luhansk
Karpaty Lviv 0-1 Dynamo Kyiv
Hoverla Uzhhorod 2-0 Metalurh Zaporizhia
Vorskla Poltava 1-4 Metalist Kharkiv
Arsenal Kyiv 0-2 Metalurh Donetsk
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