The UPL reawakens from its winter slumber this weekend after just over 2 months of hibernation. All the clubs have been hard at work at their mid season, warm-ish weather, training camps since mid January and are raring to get back into the competitive swing of things. As has always been the case, there have been countless player movements, exciting transfer rumours and even the odd game changing announcement during the hiatus. As Ukraine prepares to see in the second half of the domestic footballing season, a new year welcomes a new dawn in the Ukrainian Premier League!

VAR has ARRIVED!

The revolutionary change to the way matches will be officiated will make its debut on this opening Matchday, with Dynamo Kyiv and Vorskla Poltava going down in the history books as the first teams to go toe to toe with the new system in place. VAR has finally made it to Ukraine but only in a limited capacity for the remainder of the season. 

So far the UAF has announced that only 10 matches will be used to test out the product over the coming weeks. This will include two games a matchday for the next four gameweeks and then the remaining two in the Ukrainian Cup Quarter Finals. Matchday 19 will also see the operation in place during Shakhtar’s game with Desna. 

There are regularly dubious calls and decisions made by officials during games in the top flight, so it will be interesting to see how referees take to it and more importantly whether it will improve competence and decision making!

THE POST-WINTER RECONNAISSANCE 

The winter transfer window is rather hectic, so much so, that a whole number of moving and dealings often get overlooked or missed. Many players have returned from spells abroad, others left clubs they were stalwarts at for seasons. The UPL never ceases to surprise!

Mariupol v Zorya Luhansk

Mariupol had a relatively quiet window. They did make one notable signing though and it will come as a shock to absolutely nobody that the player they did recruit 1) came from Shakhtar 2) signed on a loan deal. The player in question is Danylo Ihnatenko, who spent the first half of the season at Serhiy Rebrov’s Ferencvaros where he made 26 appearances in total.

Mariupol are very much resembling a Shakhtar reserve team, having made 13 transfers this season – one player signing permanently, the other twelve in on loan and all incomings arriving from their exiled Donbas neighbours Shakhtar Donetsk. The biggest loss to the side will be that of Vladyslav Vakula moving in the opposite direction after signing for the Miners in the summer. Their main creative and goal scoring outlet has been lost and as such it will be interesting to see how they cope without him. 

Zorya are the visitors to the Azov coast as these two sides are given the honour of cutting the figurative 2020 UPL ribbon in the opening match of the year. Luhansk’s fortunes over the close period were slightly more mixed. They ended up losing one of their star men during the first half of the season – Nazariy Rusyn, who was recalled back to Dynamo from his loan, whilst Pylyp ‘The Tree Stump’ Budkivskyi was allowed to move to Desna.

The reinforcements for these losses arrived in the form of Mihailo Perovic, a young Montenegrin forward, who played for Zorya’s early round Europa League opponents Buducnost. Some scouting system they’ve got there! Far from prolific, let’s see if he can make a name for himself in the UPL…

Additionally, wide man Andrejs Ciganiks, a Latvian relation of ProFootball’s Ihor Tsyhanyk also signed. The only other notable signing was that of Croatian Lovro Cvek who is a central midfielder. Granted, none of these players are household names, however, they are all young and judging by Skripnyk’s track record at developing such talent, all may not be lost with the departure of Rusyn. Lednev is still at the club after all!

PREDICTION: Zorya are the stronger and more favoured side on paper. Lednev has shown further glimpses of his early season form during the winter friendlies, whilst other members of the squad such as Mykhaylychenko, Abu Hanna and Ivanisenia remind you that this squad has a serious shot at that silver medal place. Mariupol could drift away from their loosely held Top 6 spot due to the Vakula sized hole they now have in their side. Goals may return with old boy Fomin back from injury but it looks to be a difficult Spring awaits. 1-3

Dynamo Kyiv v Vorskla Poltava

Dynamo go into the 2020 curtain raiser sitting, rather fortunately in second. Albeit by the skin of their teeth. The league title is all but lost for another season as had been as early as the autumn. Mykhaylychenko decided to take the winter break as a chance to clear down his convoluted squad. 

Dynamo said goodbye to Zambrano (starting Copa America final full back) having never been given a chance at Kyiv – but alas his ordeal is over. Gerson Rodrigues departed on loan to Ankaragucu in Turkey after falling out with the coaching staff and Denys Harmash similarly was loaned out to Turkey to join fellow compatriots Morozyuk and Boryachuk at Rizespor. Who will Mykhaylychenko turn to now that his favourite card attracting super sub is not available?

Incomings saw Nazariy Rusyn return from a successful six months with Zorya – a spell cut short out of goal scoring desperation and the fact that Besedin is now banned indefinitely for testing positive during a banned substance test. Unknown entities, Kargbo Jr and Benito also signed but due to a serious injury, the former is ruled out until the summer. Typical. 

Sitting in second bottom, Yuri Maxymov’s Vorskla saw more players arrive than go outward during the off period. Rather prolific Persha Liha forward Ruslan Stepaniuk returns to Ukraine after a spell in Kazakhstan to bolster a seriously lacklustre Poltava strike force. The non goalscoring striker, Yuri Kolomoyets, whose decline has been well documented over the past year, left for Estonia along with defender Ochihava. 

So who better to have return and replace Yura than Vladyslav Kulach, a forward who can actually convert chances. The 26 year old returns after a year away; having had a short spell at Oleksandriya before being struck by health problems and then a spell in Hungary. Ex Zorya defender, Opanasenko also arrives from Konyaspor to shore up a flagging defence. They may be able to get out of their relegation run if if they start to score goals and create chances. But it is more than likely that they have a three way scrap on their hands for survival alongside the two Lviv clubs.

PREDICTION: Dynamo have looked rather impressive during their winter warm up games, with Mykhaylychenko experimenting on numerous occasions and giving a whole host of players run outs. Fran Sol and Duelund look to be back to full fitness and could end up being like new signings for the Kyiv club, that is if they are utilised by their manager, who certainly has a tendency to stick to ‘favourites’.

Vorskla have signed a few players who will most certainly boost their lack of fire power but at this stage. However, even with Tsyhankov out, the home side should have enough to beat their former player’s team. VAR also makes its UPL bow in this fixture, meaning attention may be privy to the referees much more than that of the football itself. Dynamo will be playing this game in front an empty stadium after a UAF decision – in response to racist chanting during the El Clasico in November. 2-0

Karpaty Lviv v Dnipro-1

Bottom side Karpaty have A LOT of work to do if they are to stay up this season. They may only be 3 points from safety but it was looking increasingly difficult to see them grab a victory towards the end of last year. This winter was very much a great exodus when it came to first team squad members. Familiar names Pidkivka, Kucher, Kovtun, Hrysio, Ponde and Mendez were all released. Hutsuliak, who was once a Karpaty key man, departed for Desna whilst Di Franco returns to Lviv for the first time since joining Dnipro-1. 

However, Roman Sanzhar has been able to bring in a number of shrewd signings to replace them. Hennadiy Pasich joins his former Olimpik manager in the City of Lions, as does former teammate, Karpaty nemesis (and consistent free scoring opponent) Matar Dieye to try and get some goals for this underperforming club. U20 World Cup winner Oleksiy Khaklov has also linked up in western Ukraine alongside former Shakhtar second choice keeper, Kanibolotskyi. The question will be whether these new recruits can help to save this historic club from the drop. It will not be easy by any stretch.

Dnipro-1 arguably had the best transfer intake of the window, on paper at least. After an underwhelming start to their debut top flight campaign, Mykhaylenko certainly needed some reinforcements if his side were to challenge for that final top six spot. Dnipro-1 who use all the same infrastructure of the now defunct FC Dnipro have been able to attract a considerable amount of seasoned UPL talent and experience. Volodymyr Adamyuk and Oleksandr Svatok return to the city where they once played in. Whilst Belarus Championship winning forward Oleksiy Khoblenko and Andriy Tsurikov, who endured a less successful spell at Jablonec both return to Ukraine to turn out for the UPL debutants. 

Additonally, some South American flavour has also been added to the ranks in the form of ex Lviv right back Lucas Taylor and influencial former Karpaty midfielder Franco Di Franco. It will evidently depend on how well the new players gel with the existing crop but if you combine these new signings along with the existing squad already at Dnipro-1’s disposal, then it looks like they are the front runners to make a late dash for the final Championship Group spot.

PREDICTION: Both of these sides have failed to live up to their expectations so far and so this opening game of the calendar year will be a real test to see which side’s new signings and revamped line ups have better chemistry whilst showing greater cohesion on the pitch. It is a tough call but all the indications point to Dnipro-1 picking up a positive result due to the depth of squad they now boast. Karpaty were already rather light on quality before a load of their regulars left in the winter, so whilst their transfer accumulations look quite good, they just don’t look to possess enough to edge their opponents in this one. Goals will certainly feature. 1-2

Oleksandriya v Kolos Kovalivka

Oleksandriya had an extremely quiet mid season break. No major big name signings, rather a few players to bring in to bolster the squad. Roman Vantukh ended his loan spell with Olimpik and was subsequently loaned out by Dynamo again to the Kirovohrad oblast side. Bohdan Myshenko was brought in from Belarusian side Zhodin before Artem Hordienko’s short spell at Sheriff Tiraspol after leaving Zorya came to an end as the midfielder returned to his home country and signed for Sharan’s team.

It’s incredibly tight at the top of the UPL, with Oleksandriya still very much in with a shout of 2nd place. They will need to be at their dogmatic and gritty best if they are going to repeat last season’s bronze medal finish.

Kolos, similarly didn’t make any transfers that aroused any serious fanfare. Ruslan Kostyshyn needed to deepen the squad and has done so with a few astute transfers. Ultimate journeyman Andriy Bohdanov leaves Desna after a year to line up for the Kyiv oblast side. If they were missing a free kick taker, they’ve certainly go their hands on a good one now. Yefremov moves clubs from Obolon brovary but not home stadiums, so he will be in familiar territory when he turns out at right back for Kovalivka.

Meanwhile 2009 EURO U19 winner Kyrylo Petrov also returns to his homeland are spending a number of campaigns in Azerbaijan. Vladislavs Soloveikis has also been drafted in for defensive cover. All in all, these signings should bring stability to Kolos’ team with the club’s top scorer of recent season’s Bondarenko coming back from injury towards the end of last year. If Kolos can maintain their impressive performances from the first half of the season, then they have a real chance of making the Championship Group in a few weeks’ time in what would be their debut top flight season!

PREDICTION: The Nika is a fortress for Oleksandriya and perform well when they are at home. It will be a daunting trip for Kolos who have not travelled well this season but with Arni Vilhjamsson up top, an upset is never off the cards. Oleksandriya, no longer have the distraction of the Europa League to worry about, which certainly caused a number of hangovers during the autumn. Now they can focus all their energy on the league and cup, it’s highly likely Sharan will go for the jugular to ensure the year get off with a win. 2-1

Shakhtar Donetsk v Desna Chernihiv

Shakhtar made NO major signings this winter break. They welcomed Vakula who joined up with the team for the first time after signing in the summer and being loaned back to Mariupol. Other than that, there were a number of familiar names in the departure list. Bohdan Butko was loaned to Lech Poznan, Andriy Boryachuk on a similar deal joined Rizespor whilst perennial loanee Andriy Totovitskyi left for this weekend’s opponents Desna.

Luis Castro’s was more content with being able to keep two of his biggest stars rather than allowing them to leave in this window. Mykola Matviyenko was mooted for a move to Arsenal, with negotiations stalling over a deal that both sides were mutually happy about. Arsenal were after a loan deal with an obligation to buy in the summer but Shakhtar wanted upwards of 30 million Euros. Elsewhere, Taison was pushing for a transfer away and continues to post cryptic captions on his Instagram posts about being sad or being withheld from his dreams. 

Nevertheless, both players started in Shakhtar’s highly impressive win over Benfica in the Europa League Round of 32 in midweek. Ukrainian clubs always seem to be slightly off the pace when they come back from two months off from competitive football but instead Shakhtar pulled one out one of their best performances in Europe for many a season.

Alan Patrick and Kovalenko ensured a narrow but comfortable 2-1 win in the first leg of this tie. Shakhtar took the game to Benfica, who themselves looked to be the side that had just come back from a winter break, and showed some wonderful passing and fast build up play.

Taison certainly didn’t hold anything back in his performance either, proving how influential he is in this side coming in from that left hand side. The league is as good as wrapped up for Shakhtar now, so expect a number of weakened line ups in the UPL as long as Shakhtar remain in Europe!

Desna are most definitely side that will be taking the league seriously. The 19/20 season so far has been a revelation for the Chernihiv side, with Ryabokon’s men very much in the mix for the European spots and all but secure in their first ever (and last ever) Championship Group finish. The window saw a number of attacking reinforcements arrive in Northern Ukraine to ensure the goals keep coming. Target man, Pylyp Budkivskyi signed from Zorya as did former Shakhtar youth teammate Andriy Totovitskyi. 

Hutsulyak left his second spell at boyhood club Karpaty to try and challenge at the other half of the table, rather than be posited with another year of the relegation battle. Meanwhile down the other side of the pitch, Estonia international Joonas Taam comes in to boost the back line. Desna will need to maintain their first half of the season momentum if they are to finish above either Zorya or Dynamo but with no major outgoings, they certainly should be able to put in a good fight for one of the premium European spots.

PREDICTION: Shakhtar will likely rest a number of players due to the key second leg tie in Lisbon next Thursday. There is plenty of recovery time in between but being so close to the first leg too should see a number of rotations. Either way, despite Desna being in the position they are at the moment, Shakhtar always find a way to grab a narrow victory against them. A repeat of September’s result looks to be a comfortable prediction. 1-0

Olimpik Donetsk v Lviv

Olimpik Donetsk sit teetering between the drop and the final Championship group spot. Vicente Gomez, made a few signings in this window aiming to ensure that UPL status can be assured for yet another season. Orest Lebedenko comes in on loan from CD Lugo and Dmytro Lytvyn arrives from Zorya to boost the defensive prowess.

Whilst Maksym Dehtaryov, who just couldn’t stay away, returns to his former club on loan from Desna despite only leaving in the past summer. Denys Balanyuk also signs to fill the forward ranks after Matar Dieye went out to Karpaty.

Other recognisable players to leave were full back Trubochkin and one half of the Pasich brothers, Hennadiy. It will be interesting to see how they cope without Dieye who has been vital in the relegation runs of seasons’ past with Olimpik ultimately not in possession of enough quality to break into that final top six place.

Lviv signed seven new players during the close period. Joel Bopesu, Yuri Kravchuk, Yehor Kymenchuk, Andriy Busko and Mykyta Khodakovskyi all come in to boost the defensive areas of the team. Full backs aplenty along with a centre back and a defensive midfielder. Meanwhile, another Brazilian arrives, in the form of Matheus Iacovelli, aiming to bring back the prolific (for Lviv anyway) goalscoring exploits of compatriot and former Lviv man Bruno Duarte. Regardless of these signings, it still seems that another half season of flirting with relegation awaits.

PREDICTION: None of the other games this weekend scream out 0-0 as much as this one. Yes, there are a few goals in both sides but the reality is that neither side’s forward line possesses any kind of consistency. It’s going to be a tough tackling and one dimensional affair at Stadion Ukraina which ultimately won’t see many goals or action of any kind. 0-0

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