By Vadim Furmanov –
While the Ukrainian Premier League is on its extended winter break, Futbolgrad discusses the main talking points of the first half of the season:
The Perpetual Crisis in the Ukrainian Premier League
Unfortunately, the headlines of the first half of the season were dominated not by the happenings on the pitch, but about the crisis constantly brewing off of it. Metalurh Zaporizhya have spent the last few months on life support, still taking part in the competition but with very little chance of returning for the second half of the season. There were rumors that either a German company or that one of Rinat Akhmetov’s companies were set to take over the club, but thus far nothing has come to fruition. All hope is not yet lost, as there are nearly two months remaining until the start of the season, which may be enough time to find an investor. But the outlook is still grim, and Metalurh are the primary candidates to become the first team to exit the league.
Things aren’t much better at Metalist Kharkiv, where fans hold out hope that former owner Oleksandr Yaroslavsky will return and rescue the club from the grip of current owner-turned-fugitive Serhiy Kurchenko.
Hoverla Uzhhorod in turn are nothing more than Dynamo’s farm team and have debts toward many of their former players, which has led to a transfer ban and a possible point deduction. The latest club to become engulfed by a crisis is the once-stable Stal Dniprodzerzhynsk, where a power struggle amongst the leadership has put the future of the newly promoted side in jeopardy.
Due to the ongoing struggles league officials have finally begun a much-needed reform process, and next season the league will most likely be reduced to 12 teams and split into two groups of six halfway through the season.
Prediction: Metalurh will not come back for the second half of the season, but all others will. Hoverla will go bankrupt over the summer.
The Battle for European Spots
While few expected Dnipro to compete for the title with Dynamo and Shakhtar this season, seeing them drop out of the top three comes as a surprise. The club has been dealing with their own crisis following a mass exodus of players in the summer and a lack of adequate replacements. Manager Myron Markevych has not been shy at expressing his discontent, and things are only getting worse over the winter transfer window, with key performers such as Denys Boyko, Douglas, and Valeriy Fedorchuk reportedly on their way out of the club.
Zorya have taken advantage of Dnipro’s decline and have seized third spot in the table–assuming either Dynamo or Shakhtar win the Ukrainian Cup–third place equals automatic entry into the Europa League. Zorya are truly one of the few bright spots in Ukrainian football. Despite playing in exile and relying heavily on Shakhtar loan signings, manager Yuriy Vernydub has built an exciting young side that has lost only twice in the first half of the season—and one of those was a heavy 7-1 defeat at the hands of Shakhtar, who did not permit four of Zorya’s players from participating in the match, as they were on loan deals from Shakhtar. Zorya defeated Dnipro 3-0 and held Dynamo to a 0-0 draw, one of just two occasions in which Dynamo have dropped points so far. Their fantastic form is reflected by the fact that seven Zorya players have earned call-ups to the national team in recent months.
The other main candidates for the remaining European spots are Volyn and Vorskla, although Karpaty and newly promoted Oleksandriya also may have an outside shot.
Prediction: Zorya will suffer due to the loss of Ruslan Malinovskyi, but considering that Dnipro are also likely to lose several important players, Vernydub’s side have enough quality to maintain their six point advantage over Dnipro, win the bronze medal, and then qualify for the group stages of a European competition for the first time. Looking past Dnipro, traditionally Volyn tend to experience a drastic loss of form in the spring and also risk a point deduction due to unpaid debts. Vorskla simply have more quality than the competition and should secure fifth place.
The Battle for the Title
At the midseason break Dynamo and Shakhtar are locked in a tight battle, tied for first place at 43 points. In their one meeting this season Shakhtar dominated their rivals and handed them their worst ever home victory in the history of the Ukrainian league, a 3-0 beating in Kyiv’s Olimpiyskiy National Sports Complex. It is the one blemish on a near-perfect season for Serhiy Rebrov’s men thus far, who qualified for the Champions League playoff stage for the first since the late 90s. Shakhtar will also play European football in the spring, finishing third in their group and qualifying for the Europa League, where they will face Schalke.
The gap in quality between the top two and the rest of the teams in the Ukrainian Premier League is immense, and it would not be a surprise if the title literally came down to the return match in (presumably) Lviv in late April. Whether the teams are involved in European competition for an extended period of time could also factor into the title race – while Dynamo are likely to be eliminated by Manchester City in the Round of 16, a deep run by Shakhtar in the Europa League could distract their attention away from the domestic competition and allow Dynamo to retain the title.
The transfer window could also still affect how the league finishes. Dynamo have let both Artem Kravets and Younes Belhanda depart on loan for the remainder of the season, but this has more to do with Rebrov placing his faith in his other players than any cost-cutting move. At Shakhtar, striker Alex Teixeira, on pace to shatter the season goal scoring record, has been heavily linked with a move to Chelsea, but manager Mircea Lucescu has denied that the club have received any official offers. While Shakhtar have enough talent to look for goals elsewhere, losing Teixeira would still make their title pursuit more difficult.
Prediction: If rumors that this will be Lucescu’s last season at Shakhtar are to be believed, then it is certain that the Romanian manager will want nothing more than to take back the league title from Dynamo to prove that his side is superior even in much tougher conditions. If Teixeira remains and keeps up his form, it is difficult to see Shakhtar slipping up. Though it is too early to make predictions that far ahead, if the sides end the season tied on points the title will come down to goal difference, where Shakhtar currently have a +8 advantage. At the moment Shakhtar must be considered the favorite, albeit by the smallest possible margin.
Vadim Furmanov is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science. Originally from Ukraine, Vadim has resided in Chicago since 1994 and is a passionate supporter of both Dynamo Kyiv and the Ukrainian national team. He is also a Chicago Fire season ticket holder and a member of the Fire’s Section 8 supporters group. He writes primarily about Ukrainian football, as well as the intersection between football, politics, and history. You can follow Vadim on Twitter @vfurmanov