UKRAINE: Premier League Season Preview

Ukraine

It has been a tumultuous summer for Ukrainian football, and not for the right reasons. The headlines were dominated by numerous off-the-field problems that plagued the league.

Last season it emerged that three clubs, Kryvbas Kryvyi Rih, Arsenal Kyiv, and Volyn Lutsk were in dire straits financially. Though Arsenal and Volyn have managed to stay afloat, Kryvbas, a team that finished eighth in the league and gained as many points as Dynamo Kyiv after the winter break despite players not receiving their wages, have ceased operations and will not compete in the 2013-14 campaign. Under normal circumstances, two teams get relegated from the UPL and two teams get promoted from the First League, but in this case circumstances were far from normal. Hoverla Uzhhorod, who finished the campaign second from bottom and in the relegation zone, were granted a reprieve due to Kryvbas’ bankruptcy. Fairly reasonable. But it is downright ridiculous that Metalurh Zaporizhya, a team that only registered one win all season long and finished 16 points from safety with a goal difference of -52, will still be competing in the UPL come this weekend! The reason for their salvation perfectly illustrates the sorry state of Ukrainian football. FC Sevastopol, the 2012-13 First League champions, were promoted and will play in the top flight. But the second and third place sides, Stal Alchevsk and PFC Oleksandriya, refused promotion, while fourth place side Bukovyna Chernivitsi were denied a Premier League license. Metalurh, as a result, will remain in the UPL. Hardly the kind of summer that inspires confidence in the viability of football in Ukraine.

In addition to the farce surrounding the promotion spots, there has been plenty of controversy over the proposed ‘United League’ that would unify the Russian and Ukrainian championships with an alleged goal of ultimately reviving the Soviet Top League. The project is backed by Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller, who is reportedly offering a prize fund of €1 billion, and among its greatest proponents is Valery Gazzaev, the former manager of Russia, Dynamo Kyiv, CSKA Moscow, and many other teams in the CIS. But the project has been heavily criticized by football officials on both sides of the Ukraine-Russia border, while FIFA President Sepp Blatter has dismissed the idea as “impossible.” Fuel was poured on the fire a few weeks ago, when the so-called “United Tournament,” a friendly competition involving two teams from Ukraine, Dynamo and Shakhtar, and two from Russia, Zenit and Spartak, took place. Though organizers vehemently denied the accusations, critics alleged that the competition was a test run for the ‘United League’ of the future. The Ultras of Dynamo boycotted the competition altogether, and there were reports of crowd trouble at the Dynamo-Spartak match. Dynamo won the tournament, but many were left with a sour taste in their mouth.

Now, on to the football. Shakhtar have experienced an exodus of some of their most influential players from last season’s double winning side, but still remain firm favorites to retain the title for a fifth consecutive season. Willian made the move to Anzhi Makhachkala back in the January window, and his compatriot Fernandinho has moved to Manchester City for a reported 35 million pounds. Henrikh Mhitaryan, the Armenian midfielder who set the single season UPL goalscoring record last season, has transferred to Borussia Dortmund, while Romanian fullback Razvan Rat has signed with West Ham on a Bosman. To offset these departures Shakhtar have once again looked to South America. Fernando has been brought for 10 million pounds from Gremio as a likely replacement for Fernandinho. Fred from Internacional, who already scored twice in the Super Cup, and Wellington from Fluminense have also both signed, and a new center forward has been bought in the shape of Argentinian Facundo Ferreyra of Velez Sarsfield. On the eve of the season’s kickoff Shakhtar remain over 25 million in the black, and still have funds available should they choose to strengthen the squad. The departures of such key players will surely have an effect, but Mircea Lucescu still has a fantastic group of players at his disposal, and if the new arrivals mesh with the rest of the squad there is no reason to believe that they will not dominate once again. They made it look easy in their 3-1 victory over Chornomorets in the Super Cup, and remain the cream of the crop in Ukrainian football.

Last season Shakhtar ran away with the league, which was essentially over by March, if not earlier. Next season, Dynamo Kyiv will hope to pose more of a challenge to their rivals and attempt to retake what they believe to be their rightful place at the top of the Ukrainian football hierarchy. Last season was the first time Dynamo finished outside of the top two in the history of independent Ukraine, and as a result will not be playing in the Champions League qualifiers. Such a poor showing is inexcusable, and as a result Dynamo President Ihor Surkis has once again opened his checkbook and spent heavily on new additions. Dynamo’s transfers over the past few seasons have been a disappointing and largely confusing affair. Raffael was signed from Hertha Berlin last season, made just nine appearances, and was duly sent to Schalke on loan during the winter transfer window. This summer he was sold to Borussia Monchengladbach at a loss of several million pounds. The Argentinian Marco Ruben, bought from Villarreal, even made it onto Michael Cox’s end of season list of worst transfers. This transfer window Dynamo have signed the highly rated 23 year old French attacking midfielder Younes Belhanda from Montpelier, Dutch striker Jeremain Lens from PSV, and Congolese striker Dieumerci Mbokani from Anderlecht for a combined total of over 27 million pounds. It remains to be seen if manager Oleh Blokhin can incorporate these new signings into the squad, or if they too will be gone by next season, having taken an unceremonious spot on a worst transfers list. Surkis is expecting a return on these investments, and although it is difficult to imagine Dynamo unseating Shakhtar this season, they will be at least expected to compete for the title and not roll over as meekly as they did last season. If Shakhtar once again runs away with the league, Blokhin’s legendary status at Dynamo is unlikely to save his job.

Metalist qualified for the Champions League preliminary stages for the first time last season as they leapfrogged Dynamo and claimed the number two spot. Metalist lost their star Brazilian Taison to Shakhtar in the winter, but also resigned prolific striker Marko Devic after an unhappy spell at Shakhtar. Otherwise Metalist have been relatively quiet in the market; their other two main signings have been the Brazilian Jaja from Al Ahli of the United Arab Emirates, and left back Marcio Azevedo of Botafogo. Myron Markevich’s side will look to build on their impressive 2012-13 campaign and are hoping for a fortunate draw in their third round Champions League qualifier. Retaining the number two spot will surely be a success.

Juande Ramos’s Dnipro looked like favorites to get the second spot for a while but faded badly down the stretch and sunk to fourth. Like Metalist, they have largely stuck with the players available to them. Left back Alexandru Vlad was brought in from the Romanian league, while Derek Boateng signed for Fulham on a free transfer. But with players like Ukraine’s star winger Yevhen Konoplyanka and Brazilian striker Matheus at his disposal, Juande Ramos will hope to improve on last season’s disappointing finish. He certainly has the tools to do so.

As it stand, these four sides will likely compete for the top four spots. Metalurh Donetsk and Chornomorets Odessa, the two other Ukrainian teams who will participate in the Europa league alongside Dynamo and Dnipro, may offer some stiff competition, and may sneak into the top four, but they will need to elevate their game. Shakhtar remains the undisputed favorite despite the exodus of many of their top performers, and there are massive question marks surrounding Dynamo’s transfers and their ability to finally dethrone Shakhtar. This season promises to be a fascinating one in the Ukrainian Premier League. Let’s just hope that it is what happens on the field that dominates headlines.

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Vadim Furmanov

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