The Ukrainian Premier League (Vyshcha Liha in Ukrainian language) was established in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union with the creation of an independent Ukraine.
With the exception of the first year, when Tavriya Simferopol was crowned as champion (actually the first championship lasted only half a year because the federation decided to shift the football season from a spring fall to fall spring), the championship was always a two horse race between Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk.
In the following 16 years Dynamo Kyiv was crowned 12 times and Shakhtar Donetsk 4 times. There are only 5 teams who participated in all the championships without interruption, notably Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, Tavria Simferopol and Metalurh Zaporizhia beside the two previously mentioned giants.
It’s interesting to note that the only city west of Kyiv represented in the Vyshcha Liha is Lviv (albeit with two
teams, Karpaty and FC Lviv), but the east is very well represented with two teams each from Donetsk (Shakhtar and
Metalurh) and Kharkiv (Metalist and FC Kharkiv) for example, and Dnipropetrovsk (Dnipro), Zaporizhia (Metalurh),
Luhansk (Zorya), Poltava (Vorskla), Kryvy Rih (Kryvbas).
There are three teams from the south, Chornomorets from Odessa, Tavriya from Simferopol and Illichivets from Mariupol and of course two from the capital Kyiv, Dynamo and Arsenal.
These 16 teams just started the new season with the usual anticipation for a race between Dynamo and Shakhtar. Ukraine is 11th on the UEFA Country Ranking list, which means that the first two will qualify for the Champions League and the 3rd and 4th, plus the Cup winner goes to the UEFA Cup.
The favourites for the places behind the two giants are Metalist Kharkiv and Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk. The fith representative is any body’s guess.
After the first four rounds surprisingly neither Dynamo nor Shakhtar are among the top two. Dynamo started with two
wins, but lost against Metalist Kharkiv at home and played to a draw against Vorskla Poltava away.
Shakhtar played its first two games in Lviv in front of a hostile crowd (both games attracted over 20 thousand people each) and gathered only a single point, losing to newcomer FC Lviv and drawing the next week against Karpaty. Finally, last week they managed to beat the other newcomer Illichivets at home 3-0, but played to a draw on Saturday in Dnipropetrovsk.
Shakhtar brought in Marcelo Moreno, a Bolivian international and a very talented young player who scored 8 goals in the Libertadores Cup for the Brazil club Cruzeiro in the present season. Lots of big names left during the last year: Matuzalem, Elano, Marica, Lucarelli, Aghahowa, Tymoschuk and Pletikosa while Castillo is on loan to Manchester City.
The foreigners have a hard time to adjust to the cold winter, to the life in this industrial city renowned for its dour reputation and to the arguably low level of football in the Premier League.
Despite these losses Shakhtar still have a few very familiar names in their books, for example Srna (Croatia), Duljaj (Serbia), Hubschman (Czech Republic), Lewandowski (Poland), Rat (Romania), six Brazilians (Brandao, Ilsinho, Fernandinho are the most recognizable) and homegrown talents Chyhrynsky, Kucher and Hladkiy.
Rinat Akhmetov, the owner of Shakhtar and of Tatar origin is the richest oligarch in Ukraine and together with flamboyant coach Mircea Lucescu from Romania (who once even coached Inter
Milan) he dreams of creating a team of equal level to a European powerhouse on the steppe of the Cossacks.
Dynamo Kyiv’s biggest purchase was Vukojevic from Dinamo Zagreb, but they also have some notable names from abroad and
some homegrown talent coming to age, Bangoura (Guinea), Ghioane (Rumania), Sablic (Croatia), Shatskih (Uzbekistan),
El Kaddouri (Morocco), Yusuf Ayila, Okoduwa (both Nigeria) and the veteran goalie and captain Shovkovsky. Other names are Nesmachny, Husiev and the young Aliev, Milevsky, Kravets and Mikhalik.
The sad truth is that since Shevchenko left for Milan and the famous coach Lobanovsky died, Dynamo Kyiv is in a steady decline and cannot seriously challenge the big teams in Europe. If the new coach Syomin is able to arrest the trend, remains to be seen.
In the European Cups Tavriya Simferopol was kicked out in the third round of the Intertoto Cup by Rennes of France. They lost the first game in France 1-0 with a goal in added time, but won the home game with the same score and after extra time the result remained the same, they lost in the penalty shoot-out.
Dynamo Kyiv started in the second qualifying round in the Champions League and won in Dublin against Drogheda United 2-1. The second game ended in a stalemate, 2-2 last Wednesday in Kyiv and Dynamo win 4-3 on aggregate. Their next opponent will be Spartak Moskva. The old rivalry comes to life with this game. These two were the most successful during the Soviet era.
Shakhtar play the third qualifying round in the CL against Dinamo Zagreb. Dnipro appear in the second qualifying round of the UEFA cup against Bellinzona from Switzerland. Metalist Kharkiv, also in the UEFA cup will know its first opponent in the first round proper only after the qualifying rounds are over.
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