WEEK IN REVIEW

The UPL resumed last Saturday after two months away from the competitive limelight! VAR arrived and a whole number of new signings made debuts for their new clubs!

Zorya kicked us off in Mariupol as they took their Donbas neighbours on the Azov coast. Man of the moment Bohdan Lednev was got what was the winner after converting a direct free kick. He was dangerous as usual and it would not be surprising to see Shevchenko hand the player a call up for the next set of friendlies in March. Perevoic got a goal on his first appearance for the Luhansk club whilst Myshnov grabbed a consolation for the Seagulls. Zorya won 2-1 to ensure they stay toe to toe with Dynamo.

Dynamo, then became the first ever side, along with Vorskla to play under the additional eye of VAR. Ironically, it wasn’t called upon once in a game rather sparing of controversy and overall a lack of quality. Dynamo were certainly using the game to get back up to speed with things as they ended up needing an acrobatic Verbic goal to secure all three points against second bottom in the table.

Buyalskyy got Dynamo’s first after his cross come shot evaded everyone and ended up in the back of the net. Before Stepnayuk, getting a debut goal for Vorskla who made their limited chances count thanks to some prominent defensive errors in the Dynamo back line. The 2-1 FT scoreline flatters Vorskla a lot more than the game suggests but on the whole it sums up the need for Dynamo to convert more of their chances. It will come to hurt them against the better sides!

Kolos caused a stir in Oleksandriya when they too nabbed an additional time winner to steal all three points from Volodymyr Sharan’s side! Yevhen Smyrnyi was on board to score twice in the absence of Arni in the starting XI and it’s a result that leaves the Kyiv oblast club in a good position to make the top six in their first ever top flight season.

Oleksandriya, who enjoyed a strong winter break were disappointing. It’s still too early to tell as to whether their recent overachieving exploits in the league and Europe are starting to catch up with them but they have a lot to do still if they want to manage another bronze medal finish.

Karpaty Lviv secured their Relegation Group status before anyone else! Their 1-1 draw with Dnipro-1 , means they are mathematically out of the top 6 running with just three games to go.

Dnipro-1 hindered their own chances greatly by not being able to win in the Lion City and as such will need to rely on their close rivals to slip up with some difficult fixtures of their own coming up.

All is not lost for Karpaty on the relegation front. They are still within leapfrog distance of Vorskla. It looks like the goals department in both sides will play a huge role in deciding who will be the team to go down with the defences being far from rectifiable overnight! Dieye and Supryaha got a goal apiece for their sides with the result ending in 1-1!

Shakhtar rested almost two thirds of their team for the showdown with Desna. This was in no small part due to the crucial second leg Europa League tie with Benfica in the following midweek. As such Shakhtar’s bench players such as Konoplyanka and Bondar were given a run out.

As this season has proved, Desna are no pushovers and took the game to the Miners in Kharkiv. However, the test use of VAR in this match came to bite them in the very first official review. Desna took the lead via debutant Hutsulyak but it was overturned due to Fillipov being offside in the build up. It was the correct decision. Chernihiv continued to threaten and hold Shakhtar at bay, following the introduction of Taison and Marlos to the mix.

However as is usually the case, Shakhtar got a lucky break in the 90+5 minute. One final break into the box ended with the ball falling to Marlos with his back to goal. Instinctively he pulled out a backheel flick which to the dismay of the visitors, nestled inside the far post. 1-0 and Shakhtar remain comfortably in their Champions-Elect throne.

Shakhtar weren’t done with their footballing exploits for the week though. Soon after, they departed for Lisbon to see if they could make the R16 in the Europa League for the first time since 2016.

Whilst Benfica were not at their best in Kharkiv during the first leg; they were always going to be improved in front of a home crowd.

The hosts started well as Pizzi put them ahead. However Shakhtar were never far behind. Marcos’ lofted ball to Dodo was played into the 6 yard box where a Dias bundled it into his own net. Shakhtar had their away goal. Benfica were the better side in the first half, enjoying more possession and chances. They took the lead just before half time and moved level on aggregate thanks to Dias making amends at the other end.

The second half didn’t start particularly well either. Silva pounced on a defensive mix up between Ismaily and Pyatov – leading to the latter to be so far off his own line that the Portuguese winger was able to arch it into the top corner of an empty net

However similarly to the quick response Shakhtar had to Benfica’s first goal of the night, Stepanenko powered a bullet header in from a corner. Shakhtar then began to excel in their breaks going forward and took a hold of the game.

They had two away goals now so they were in the ascendency. 20 minutes from time, Taison began another break, played a through ball to the overlapping Ismaily whose ball rebounded out to Alan Patrick. The midfielder struck the ball into the the ground on the half volley in expert fashion allowing it to bounce into the top corner. He certainly didn’t mean it to play out exactly like that but it was fantastic nonetheless!

Shakhtar managed to hold on for the 3-3 and are into the next round’s draw! An assured and exciting performance from Shakhtar who have found a new never say die attitude in Europe this season. The game is no longer over once they go behind – similarly to the Renaissance the Ukraine National team are experiencing.

The only question now is, how far can The Miners go? All the way?

Fixture Preview & Predictions

Dnipro-1 v Dynamo Kyiv

VAR IN ACTION ALERT

It’s FRIDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL to get Matchday 20 in the UPL underway! Fans of two brotherly clubs Dnipro and Dynamo Kyiv will descend on the away end at the Dnipro Arena. The now defunct club’s fans will be supporting the visitors due to their opposition to the fake’ / ‘artificial team that uses their name and represents their city in the Premier League!

Dnipro-1 are the first team up who are still chasing the final place in the top 6 ahead of the split in 3 weeks time. They hit a stumbling block last time out, drawing with Karpaty. They know time is running out. The side are 4 points adrift of current sixth place Kolos and face the UPL top two in consecutive game-weeks! It looks unlikely that they’ll be able do it when taking in that fixture list but stranger things have happened.

For starters, capital side Dynamo still look to be off the pace since coming back from the winter break. This is glaringly apparent in the previous weekend as they narrowly edged second bottom Vorskla. Not only did Dynamo lack penetrative attacking quality, they were caught at the back on a few occasions that could have easily led to more conceded goals had the opposition quality been higher.

They missed Tsyhankov and the recall of Rusyn is already showcasing the lack of understanding the Dynamo coaching staff have in the young forward’s favoured system. He is just not cut out to play up front on his own and constant wing play isn’t the most effective for a striker who isn’t a prolific header.

Until that changes, it looks like we will be seeing more of the same from Dynamo. Enough quality in periods from the likes of Verbic or Buyalskyy when times get tough but when a real challenge arises, it’s just not consistent enough across the park.

Dnipro-1 made a number of signings in the winter window and it’s likely a few will get their chances in this game. On loan Buletsa & Supryaha are to miss the game due to ineligibility so Khoblenko and co should get a chance to shine. This game has a lot of potential but will almost certainly fall flat. 0-1

Lviv v Oleksandriya

Lviv looked down and out of the race for sixth as the season entered its hiatus period back in December. However, they have given themselves the faintest of hopes after an away victory to league position neighbours Olimpik last time out. They sit 5 points off Kolos, who are currently on the final spot throne.

Whilst they don’t face the traditional top two in their next three games, they still have Oleksandriya and Zorya in the run down. Neither of those sides are walkovers and similarly will cause the other Lviv club problems!

Oleksandriya will have been extremely disappointed with their return to action last week, not only losing at the death but also underperforming at home.

Desperate to make amends and not slip up in the race for the automatic European spots, Sharan and his men need to ensure they take the points off the likely Relegation groupies whilst they still have the chance.

Defensively they’ve been a lot more susceptible this season and that will need tightening up. Sitalo ended a long standing goalless streak v Kolos and thus would be ideal if he was able to maintain some sort of form for the central Ukrainian club.

Nevertheless, Lviv have a host of new signings in their squad, with new defender Bopesu already impressing. This game will be tight, neither side have been notorious when it comes to goals. As such a goalless draw would not be beyond the realms of possibility. 0-0

Desna Chernihiv v Mariupol

Consecutive defeats either side of the new year against Dynamo and Shakhtar have left Desna slightly off the pace in the race for second despite their highly impressive but also unprecedented first half of the season which saw them sit in silver at numerous moments in time.

Both of their games against the ‘top two’ have been extremely close fought encounters, so much that Desna deserved at least a point in both but lost to solitary goals twice. Chernihiv looked sharp against Shakhtar and are sure to take this into this weekend’s game against top six chasing Mariupol.

Having made the top table last season and eventually settling in fourth, Mariupol have been rather mediocre. They lost their key creative outlet and goalscorer in Vakula and looked to be missing him against Zorya; where they were lucky to come away with just a 2-1 loss. The lack of clear cut chances doesn’t line the team up in good stead to make the ‘promised land’ but judging by their fixtures, they very well could be the favourites to retain their Championship group spot for another year!

Now that Desna have let their big club opponent ‘wave’ pass them by, they can get back to consistent business and resume their challenge for at least bronze. The conditions are favourable for them; being at home and having an organised and defensively astute squad. Mariupol to lack the cutting edge. 2-0

Kolos Kovalivka v Karpaty Lviv

Kolos are currently the club sat on the final musical chair, awaiting three more dances around the piece of furniture. The UPL debutants will be feeling on edge as they look around to see at least 5 of their closest rivals patiently waiting for the slightest of slip ups.

Dynamo Kyiv loanee Smyrnyi showed his worth in Ruslan Kostyshyn’s side as he scored a brace last time out and will be relied upon again with preferred forward man and recent injury returnee Bondarenko yet to hit the ground running in the UPL. It would be expected that Arni Vilhjalmsson will return to the starting XI after beginning the previous match on the bench. The Icelandic man always has a part to play. Goals never fall too far from the tree when he’s on the pitch.

On the contrary, Karpaty are not where they want to be and not where the majority expect to see them either. They remain at the foot of the table but were far from their usual woeful selves when they drew with Dnipro-1 at home. Matar Dieye, looks to be the goalscorer the Lviv club so desperately needed. Whilst his debut goal was somewhat dubiously onside; had VAR been present it’s debatable as to whether it would have stood, he looks lively and worked well being fed in from the flanks.

The test will be whether the Senegalese ex Juve man can convert these stray goals into consistency and hot form. If so, then relegation may not be so certain after all. With so much on the line for the away side, juxtaposing Karpaty who became the first confirmed team to be consigned to the relegation group, Kolos are favourites going into this game. With Dynamo and Shakhtar on the horizon before the cut off; maximum points need to be secured ahead of those unknowns (likely defeats)! It won’t be easy but they should just have enough. 1-2

Zorya Luhansk v Olimpik Donetsk

VAR IN ACTION ALERT

Sunday opens with another Donbas derby for Zorya. Albeit, this one is sadly being played in exile. Viktor Skripnyk’s youth revolution welcome Olimpik who are likely to still have nightmares of the previous meeting between these two outfits. Zorya won 5-0, in a game that showcased the exuberant talents of a one, Bohdan Lednev – the primary candidate for the UPL’s Player of the Season.

Lednev, resumed his 19/20 domestic campaign with little to no change in intensity from the previous year. He scored a set piece and was instrumental in Zorya’s attacks going forward. Despite losing his link up partner, Rusyn, who played in front of him – the Dynamo loanee continues to go from strength to strength. There was a moment in time where Artem Hromov was the be all and end all of Zorya – but now it seems that button has been passed onto the young Kyiv native.

Myhailo Perovic also looks like a rather astute player; drafted in following the forward departures in the winter. He will be wanting to go on a bit of a goalscoring run ahead of the real business end of the season. He has a real opportunity to do so, with Zorya having a favourable final 3 team run in.

VAR will be in use during this game, with both sides experiencing playing under the new system for the very first time. Olimpik will hope it doesn’t curve some of their past fortunes when it comes to debatable penalty decisions and strange offside calls. Nevertheless, Vicente Gomez will have been disappointed with the final result of their defeat to Lviv at home. They looked stringent but their inability to convert chances saw them come out as second best. Zahedi, Texeira and Dehtaryov will need to share the burden as Yevhen Pasich in midfield can’t be constantly relied upon to provide.

Zorya need the win to continue to keep Dynamo ticking over and on edge. If they can keep the pace with the Kyiv club, then when the two clubs eventually meet on the pitch – the games will truly mean something. The UCL play off spot is still very much in reach. Olimpik could make it if they pulled off a number of shocks, including the beating of this week’s hosts – but that just persists in looking unlikely. 3-0

Vorskla Poltava v Shakhtar Donetsk

The sole Ukrainian delegates to Europe – Shakhtar, return to league action after a difficult, hard fought encounter with Benfica. They march on to the next round in the Europa League and will in no doubt be prioritising that competition going forward with the domestic picture looking so comfortable. However, with the UPL giving us three match days inside a week – the Miners will need to take on what is put in front of them first.

Having survived a scare against Desna, Shakhtar will undoutably want to at a minimum maintain their 14 point lead ahead of Dynamo. At the moment it looks like an almost unassailable lead due to the fact that Shakhtar have not lost yet this season and with second bottom welcoming them to Poltava – it doesn’t look like that will be changing too quickly either.

Vorskla showed grit and character against Dynamo under the floodlit Lobanovskyi Stadium last time out and were cruelly denied a what seemed, nailed on point thanks to some good fortune falling on Dynamo and the legs giving way in the final moments of the game. They become the latest side who tackle the class double header of Dynamo then Shakhtar. Anything you can do, I can do better?

It will depend largely on the side Castro fields for Shakhtar in this one as to how much Vorskla end up pressurising. Despite feeling hard done bydue to the result with Dynamo; they were on the whole outplayed by their Kyiv counterparts in that game.

Had Dynamo played a more fluid system, which complimented their forwards; then more goals would have definitely been conceded. Albioune, at centre back will be hoping to keep Moraes quiet at the Oleksiy Butovsky but it still seems most reasonable that his wall will be breached at one point or another.

Castro favours rotating players even when it’a not entirely essential. With his side playing in four games in such quick succession over the course of 10 days; resting and pre game substitutions will inevitably occur. Regardless of such actions, Shakhtar should have more than enough to continue their unbeaten run. 3-0

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