The hiatus has ended!

As Ukraine slowly moves out of lockdown, the UPL emerges from its second mid-season break to conclude the seemingly never-ending 19/20 campaign!

According to the Kyiv Post (accurate as of 29th May) there have been over 22,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Ukraine, whilst officially 679 have died as a result of contracting the virus. After a relatively strict two month lockdown lasting from March to May; the country is gradually loosening quarantine measures.

During this relaxation period, which is still ongoing – the Ministry of Health and the UAF mutually agreed to permit the return of professional football, in a limited capacity. This was officially announced at the start of this week – just a few days before the UPL would officially restart. All the while, the media and public have known it would most likely be this date for a weeks, as teams resumed contact training some fourteen to eighteen days prior.

As mentioned previously, the UPL had already experienced its annual three month hiatus period during the winter months, returning in February for just a month’s worst of football before they were asked to close down once again. As such it will be interesting to see the fitness levels of the players; knowing very well from past experience it takes a couple of matchdays to fully regain momentum and second wind.

The marked differences this time around though, is the fact that the players have not had an extended friendly calendar prior to competitive fixtures be it in an exotic climate or at home. Most UPL clubs have played a couple of warm up ties over the past week in scant preparation for the fast approaching resumption. Putting the league title aside, which the majority of the populace has resigned to another routine Shakhtar trophy lift, there’s still quite a lot to play for!

Realistically four clubs still have a chance of finishing in one of the other two medal places. After an easy couple of years, in comparison to this one, Dynamo have comfortably finished in 2nd. However, it looks like they are seriously under threat from the reborn Zorya Luhansk and the surprise package Desna. Added to this, last season’s shock bronze medallists, Olexandria are also still within a shout.

Games will also be held behind closed doors – something that was already implemented during matchday 23. It’s also not uncommon for low attendances in recent seasons, and as such the crowd issue should not affect the players too greatly compared to other countries.

It’s worth remembering that this is the final time where you will see the league split in half; from next season onwards – the UPL expands to 14 teams. However, it’s not before we see some changes occur this term either. Places 4th to 7th are all catchment places for the Europa League play off. Come the end of the 9 remaining gameweeks; those four sides will take part in a mini tournament to decide who gets the final Europa League spot allocated to Ukraine.

This reshuffle not only gives added impetus for the clubs to finish as high as they can in the table – but it also gives the Bottom Six something to play for other than the Trophy of Prestige and the respite of surviving relegation. The latter a seemingly simple task this season, with Karpaty being some hopeless, despite the fact they recently acquired a new owner in the form of football agent and former club vice president; Oleh Smaylichuk.

THE MATCH PREVIEW ZONE

Championship Group = (CG) | Relegation Group = (RG)

SATURDAY

Kolos Kovalivka v Desna Chernihiv (12:00 BST / 14:00 KYIV) (CG)

Kolos kick us off at the Obolon Arena, as the Championship Group enters Matchday Two since the split – albeit with a two and a half month delay in between. This game will reveal whether the unforeseen pause, has been a blessing for Kolos, who went into it one a three game losing streak and can count themselves lucky that they even made it into the Top Six. The first post-split game saw them humbled by Oleksandriya 4-2 as the gulf between Sixth and the rest of the top table teams was laid bare.

A few positives do arise from the break for Kovalivka as they welcome back manager’s son Denys Kostyshyn who was the side’s star man early in the campaign. However, with no first team football for over six months, it’s likely to take the attacking midfielder a few games to get back to full sharpness. Whilst the same can be said for all the players who have equally sat out the past couple months.

Desna, on the other hand will arrive in Kyiv with confidence. Bar a solitary and narrow defeat to Shakhtar this calendar year, Desna continued their overachieving form from 2019 – taking off points from their medal place rivals in the process. Now they are in the top six, they will not only need to keep the pace with Dynamo and Zorya – but also capitalise on points dropped.

As such a win in this fixture could ensure it’s back to neck and neck with Kyiv – who face Shakhtar and a high possibility of not picking up a win. If Oleksandr Filippov can pick up from where he left of this weekend, just as he carried on from the old to the new year; Desna stand a good chance of a historic league finish.

The remainder of the season is not going to be enjoyable for Kolos – and the misery is likely to continue from the outset. Desna should have a slight edge thanks partaking in a warm up game versus Obolon Brovary. 0-2

Oleksandriya v Zorya Luhansk (15:00 BST / 17:00 KYIV) (CG)

The second Championship Group game of the round sees temporary silver medal holders, Zorya visit Oleksandriya, who are not too far behind the pack themselves. After a mixed start to 2020, Oleksandriya welcomed the return of key man Kyrylo Kovalets from injury by bettering Kolos in the last matchday.

Last season’s bronze medallists have played a couple of friendlies in the past week against local sides Vorskla and Cherkashchyna and seemed rather comfortable in their victories. 4-2 and 5-0 victories respectfully show that goals shouldn’t be at a premium once the league recommences. It will just be down to whether Oleksandriya’s defensive weaknesses which has been more porous this season can withstand the regular contact against the league’s top clubs.

Zorya, have not played any warm up games since returning to training; so they may actually be rustier compared to their opponents. They sit level on points with Dynamo and will need to aim to win games against those sides towards the lower end of the top six to take benefit from potential points dropped when the likes of Dynamo and Desna face Shakhtar. Fortunately for Zorya, they managed to beat their Donbas rivals in the last matchday before lockdown thanks to Shakhtar prioritising the Europa League.

Bohdan Lednev will need to pull out further game defining performances if he’s to guide his loan side into the UCL qualifiers at the expense of his parent club.

This is a tough game to call as both clubs are more than deserving of their top six berth and can easily go toe to toe if they so wish. However, due to the slight frailties seen in Oleksandriya’s defence this season; the pace and skill in Zorya’s attack should help them edge it. Hard fought tight match. 0-1

Dnipro-1 v Olimpik Donetsk (15:00 BST/ 17:00 KYIV) (RG)

Relegation looks to be almost off the cards completely for Dnipro-1. After a double header of facing closest rivals Mariupol before quarantine and winning both games; the hosts of today’s game will enter the remaining games of the season with an ego of certainty that they are the best side in the bottom half. Had it not been for a loss against Shakhtar, then they would have been amongst the big boys. Youngster Vladyslav Supryaha was in fine form ahead of the hiatus and with the fixture list ahead, it’s likely that he’s licking his lips at the prospect of facing some of those defences.

None more so than that of Olimpik. Apart from a draw with Vorskla in 2020, the Donetsk outfit hasn’t picked up another point since November of 2019. Whilst their own complacency currently doesn’t look to be too fatal (due to Karpaty’s own suicidal way of playing) they sit five points above the drop whilst the other way – nine off of their opponents.

Goals come few and far between; although the return of Dehtaryov may bring some positive impact should the forward find some form. That currently looks unlikely when viewing them during their most recent friendly versus Dynamo. Whilst they did threaten in a limited capacity, what they had just wasn’t enough to penetrate an organised back line and goalkeeper.

Whilst Dnipro-1 are hardly role models for a stringent defence; fortunately they make up for it in their attacks. Some astute signings were brought in during the winter and they looked to be bedding in rather positively before the pause. As such, it’s difficult to see anything other than a home victory. 4-0

SUNDAY

Karpaty Lviv v Mariupol (12:00 BST / 14:00 KYIV) (RG)

UPDATE: THIS MATCH WILL NO LONGER TAKE PLACE ON 31ST MAY DUE TO A POSITIVE CORONAVIRUS TEST FROM ONE OF KARPATY LVIV’S PLAYERS!

The Relegation Group continues as it opens Sunday’s fixtures. Under new ownership Karpaty may not have seen any fruits from that takeover yet (It did only occur on Tuesday) but the promise of being paid salary may be the positive spark needed to ignite an unlikely great escape.

Although the club sits bottom, a number of draws against arch rivals Lviv has maintained a slight chance of survival – thanks in no small part due to the incompetence of Olimpik above them. That being said, the club lost a few key players during the quarantine period who for once reason or another, decided to leave for good.

Tim Hall, one of the more positive lights in a sorry Karpaty squad has been one of those casualties, alongside his countryman Marvin Martins – whose arguably been the club’s most consistent defender this term. They will most certainly be missed. Time is running out as to whether Roman Sanzhar has any jokers up his sleeve, because so far he hasn’t displayed any nouse to signify that he does. The winter signing of Matar Dieye has not paid off – and unless the team can convert their draws into wins then their Premier League will come to an end sooner rather than later.

Mariupol have also fallen off in the league this season. After a shock fourth place finish last time out and a favourable fixture list to qualify for the Top Six – they proved that they just don’t have the quality to match the league’s bigger sides. Shakhtar loanees can only contribute so far. Mariupol’s primary focus will be the Ukrainian Cup – in which they are through to the semis in.

They’re not too far off the UEL play-off spot but having already lost to Dnipro-1 in the first post-split round, they’ll need to pick up some momentum in the league of they are to challenge their new arch rivals. Dmytro Mishnyov and Topalov look to be the main outlets for anything creative in the side. Babych will need to utilise them if his side are to convert from the limited chances they produce.

These sides have met twice in the league already this season – drawing on both occasions. Another draw would not be surprising. 1-1

Vorskla Poltava v Lviv (12:00 BST / 14:00 KYIV) (RG)

Here is the match-up between two safe sides. They’re relatively clear of the Persha Liha trap door and they’re a bit off of that top spot. The two lowest scoring sides in the competition meet in Poltava. Whilst both squads are flailing when it comes to any kind of attacking flair or threat – the defences are where they shine. 

Vorskla were looking rather skeletal and fatigued at the start of the season – playing with an astonishingly old back line. Since Yuri Maksymov has arrived, he’s reinstated the Vorskla way. Solid at the back – minimal up top.

Pape Alioune has rejuvenated the back line with some extra energy and powerful presence. His youthfulness alongside the experience of captain Chesnakov can ensure that there won’t be too many goals conceded during the end of the season. Ibrahim Kane and Luizao have also impressed.

Maksymov’s multicultural side look like they are slowly being built into a formidable team but this season is just too early for it all to click and come into consistency. With not too much to play for in the league – it is likely that priority will be given to the Cup in which Vorskla are through into the semi finals in.

Lviv are very much in a similar boat – albeit the league is all they have left to play for. They struggle for goals greatly and this is not looking to change before the end of the season. The Brazilians in the squad have not been consistent enough yet and a whole host of winter signings had still yet to fully integrate themselves into the starting line up before the hiatus.

Alvaro has shown glimpses of his quality as has Iacovelli – but they will need to up the ante if they are to prove that they can cut it in the UPL – as their compatriot Bruno Duarte did – who subsequently went on to impress in Portugal.

In preparation for this resumptive Lviv beat Minaj in a friendly last week, whilst Vorskla lost to Oleksandriya. Both sides found the net a few times despite the differing results. As such it looks like this one is nailed on draw. 0-0

The Clasichne: Tie of the Round

Shakhtar Donetsk v Dynamo Kyiv15:00 BST / 17:00 KYIV) (CG)

It’s the unmistakable GAME OF THE ROUND. What better way to see Ukrainian football back into action than with a Clasichne! 

Yes, it’s true. This fixture may well be losing its novelty the more times it gets played in a single season. It’s already the fifth meeting between the clubs this season. Despite this being such a fierce rivalry – without the undertones of fan involvement in this one – it should give sole focus to the events on the pitch rather than in the stands.

The last time these two faced each other – the game ended on a rather sour note – with monkey chants resonating from the Dynamo end – forcing Taison to lash out and leave the pitch in tears following a red card. It’s a shame that this is what brings the Ukrainian Clasico to the news headlines across the world. On this occasion though, there won’t be any fans to distract away from the actions on the pitch.

Shakhtar go into this in a relatively confident mood. They are 13 points clear at the top and look to be in a sharper physical condition compared to their adversaries, if the friendly match performances are anything to go by. The Miners brushed aside Rukh Lviv and Obolon Brovary scoring 4 goals against both despite playing with some experimental and some forced changes. 

Ismaily injured himself versus Rukh, and was just about able to play 30 minutes against Obolon. However, he has been declared fit to play against Dynamo along with Matviyenko who also injured himself versus Rukh.

Alan Patrick looked in inspired form against Obolon, as did Marlos (who now looks fully fit following an injury recovering start to 2020). The depth in Shakhtar’s squad just looks incomparable to any other side in the league. Their ability to chop and change the likes of Taison for Tete and Solomon for Konoplyanka show it’s going to be a difficult afternoon for Dynamo.

Dynamo go into this game with a mixed bag. Key man Viktor Tsyhankov is out of this fixture; along with Shaparenko and Burda. However, the absence of the team leader, could shine an opportunity for a player who has been appallingly underutilised this season; Gio Tsitaishvili.

The U20 WC winner scored a brace inside 4 minutes against Olimpik – Dynamo’s final warm up game – showing Dynamo fans that there may still be life without Tsyhankov. Although after those 4 minutes, he markedly drifted in and out of the game as the friendly lost its intensity. If he does get the nod over De Pena and Karavayev then it will be interesting to see how the young wide-man performs in such a big game.

Duelund also looks to be a player who needs to be given greater game time as he once again impressed in the Olimpik friendly. He compliments Buyalsky well and looks to create chances a great deal more than the likes of Shepelev. The biggest issue with Dynamo at the moment is that their strikers are out of form. It may be because Rusyn is not suited to playing alone upfront and that Fran Sol is low on confidence following his injury blow and general lack of favour with the coaching staff but the issue remains that they are unable to score goals within this team – leaving a huge burden on the midfield. 

The stats and evidence from recent friendlies and general season trends seem to point towards only one winner; Shakhtar. Although, as it is a derby, Dynamo are likely to have added impetus to perform out of their skins – with a unique lack of pressure from the stands (due to no fans) – can they get themselves into that liberating mindset and end up playing freely like nobody’s watching? Probably not. 2-1

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