FC BATE Borisov, who are aiming for an eighth title in a row, may not have things all their own way this season, with a trio of ambitious clubs ready to take their crown if there is any slip up from the champions as the league kicks off on Saturday.
Viktor Goncharenko's BATE have been serene on the domestic front for so long that their rivals have barely had a look in, but this season people are finding reasons to build up the hopes of FC Dinamo Minsk, FC Shakhtyor Soligorsk and FC Minsk. With the titleholders star man of recent years, Renan Bressan, departing to try his luck in Russia, and with stuttering form in pre-season friendlies, there may be renewed hope for the pack.
However, the coach is as determined as ever to hold on to their crown. "When people ask about our aims, I wonder what kind of answer do they expect to receive?" Goncharenko said. "I can give a very simple response, and the only correct answer – our aim is to win every match."
That said, aims do not always come to fruition. In the 18 friendly matches they have played in the off season BATE have won just five, scoring 18 goals. Are the team missing the FC Alania Vladikavkaz-bound Bressan? Their form in the UEFA Europa League may hint at that, falling to Fenerbahçe SK without scoring in the round of 32 after the talisman had departed.
"We have a great selection of attacking players but have not used them to their maximum potential," continued Goncharenko. "We try to change formations and to use players in different positions, but we played too narrow last season and did not use wings enough. Now we are working on balancing the team."
This only serves as encouragement for those hoping to crack the BATE hegemony, and the team most likely to top the champions are Dinamo. With some excellent acquisitions in the shape of former Russian international forward Dmitri Sychev from FC Lokomotiv Moskva, and former BATE goalkeeper Aleksandr Gutor, the squad is coming together in timely fashion, with an early test of their title credentials coming on Sunday when they face the holders.
"When I saw that we will play against my former club in the first round of matches I thanked my luck for such a present," said Gutor, the league's player of the year in 2011. "Of course, I did not expect this meeting to happen that fast, but I try not to think about it. In any case this fixture is something special, it is like a Belarus Classico, and it is very important to win in this match."
The clubs will enjoy a new format this year, as the league will split into a top and bottom half after the 12 teams have played each other twice. The top six will then continue to play for the championship, while the relegation places will be decided by fixtures between the bottom half. Though people have started raising questions about BATE's form and advocating the claims of their challengers, one thing is for certain – they will not give up their grip on the trophy without a fight.
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