Vadim Furmanov –
This past weekend the Ukrainian Premier League entered into the second stage of the competition, which is now played under a vastly different format. At the halfway stage of the season, the twelve teams split into two groups of six – the top six go to the championship group, while the bottom six are sent to the relegation group.
In the championship group of the second stage the winner gets an automatic berth in next season’s Champions League campaign, and the silver medalist gains entry into the competition at the 3rd qualifying round. Third and fourth, meanwhile, qualify for the third qualifying round of next year’s edition of the Europa League. In the relegation group things are more straightforward – the bottom get relegated the Persha Liha, and the rest survive. There is no European competition to play for.
Futbolgrad previews the rest of this unique UPL season and discusses the most (and least) intriguing storylines before the second stage kicks off:
The Second Stage and the non-existing Race for the Title
In brief, there is no race. Shakhtar have yet to lose this season and are fourteen points clear of Dynamo at the top. For the Hornyaki, who are out of Europe, the rest of the season will be a procession to their tenth title. For Shakhtar, however, the prospect of an undefeated season remains a realistic possibility. Shakhtar have once accomplished the feat, while eternal rivals Dynamo have gone undefeated three times.
Moreover, the biggest title-winning margin in the history of the Ukrainian league is 18 points, by (unsurprisingly) Dynamo over Shakhtar in 1999-00. Shakhtar’s fourteen point lead over Dynamo lead can easily grow as the sides have yet to play each other twice. Other than the Ukrainian Cup, the chance to break this record and utterly embarrass Dynamo while continuing to play in exile will serve as sufficient motivation to keep up the intensity.
The Silver Medal
Zorya Luhansk, an ambitious club of modest means, had their sights set on an unlikely second place finish this season. With Dynamo looking unconvincing all season, the six point gap coming into the start of the second round looked steep but not insurmountable. However, after just a single match that gap is now up to nine. Zorya blew a 1-0 lead to Shakhtar, and Dynamo handily dispatched FC Oleksandriya 4-1 after going a goal down.
Dynamo and Zorya still have yet to play each other twice, and Shakhtar would love nothing more than to send Dynamo crashing out of the Champions League places and giving Zorya, with whom they have close relations, a boost toward the silver medal. That would still require Zorya to maintain a level of consistency that they have been lacking. A third place finish would still be the club’s best ever result and an extraordinary accomplishment considering that they have been playing in exile and are heavily reliant on loanees from Shakhtar. Dynamo should hold on to second spot, but any more slip-ups may see this race turn out tighter than anyone would have expected.
Battle for Europe
Speaking of exile, the most unlikely of contenders for European football are Olimpik Donetsk, who, like Shakhtar and Zorya, have been forced to relocate due to the Donbass War. The relatively young club have few fans to speak of in their hometown – support in exile is virtually nonexistent. Nevertheless, Olimpik are likewise experiencing their best ever season. They currently sit fourth on 35 points, which would be enough for a spot in the Europa League qualifiers. Olimpik began the second stage with a 0-0 draw at Chornomorets, maintaining their seven point position over the fellow European hopefuls.
Between the two are upstarts Oleksandriya, another unexpected success story that trail Olimpik by just two points in fifth. Oleksandriya had their first taste of European action last season, losing 6-1 on aggregate to Croatian side Hajduk Split, but Olimpik are seeking a debut appearance. For a side only in their third season of top flight football and fourteenth season overall, a Europa League spot would be a stunning achievement.
In comparison with the two minnows Chornomorets are European giants, having been in the knockout stages of the Europa League just three seasons ago. But they are currently on the outside looking in, trailing Oleksandriya by five points and Olimpik by seven. The battle for the final European spot is only of the only gripping narratives left in this season, and the impressive performances of Oleksandriya and Olimpik represents a rare bright spot in Ukrainian football.
For the bottom six, the rest of the season is far less glamorous. Vorskla, Stal, and Zirka sit in seventh through ninth and are all at least ten points clear of the relegation zone, and so are at little risk of going down. Very little is at stake
The remaining three are Karpaty, Dnipro, and Volyn. Karpaty and Dnipro would both be relatively safe had it not been for the hefty point penalties imposed on them for various financial irregularities, but instead find themselves mired in a battle for survival. After enduring a dismal first half to the season Karpaty are all of a sudden in the midst of a resurgence and are undefeated in their last five. Dnipro also have yet to lose since the resumption of the season in March, though they have drawn four of their last five matches.
For Volyn, meanwhile, the situation is dire. The club lost their twelfth match in a row and salaries are seven months overdue. They seem like certain candidates for relegation, which leaves Dnipro and Karpaty in a showdown to remain in the Premier League next season. Karpaty currently have a three point advantage, but the two upcoming fixtures between the sides may ultimately decide which of these historic clubs will suffer the ignominy of relegation. Dnipro have never been relegated in the history of independent Ukrainian football, and Karpaty have spent just two seasons outside of the top flight. One of them, however, is unlikely to survive.
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.