By Denis Orlov
The Belarussian Premier League reaches its halfway stage this week, with a short break until the next set of fixtures on 30 July leaving time for the Belarus Cup round of 16.
FC Shakhtyor Soligorsk lead the way in the league having recovered from an indifferent start to the season. Yuri Vergeichik's team have won eight of their last nine matches, drawing the other against title-holders FC Dinamo Minsk.
Valeri Streltsov's FC Dnepr-Transmash Mogilev sit seven points behind in second place, as the surprise package of the campaign following several previous mid-table finishes. After losing 4-1 at FC Darida Zhdanovichi in June, Dnepr have rallied to beat FC Zvezda-BGU Minsk and FC Torpedo Zhodino. Not even a 5-2 defeat at Dinamo on 16 July could dampen their high spirits.
However, there is stiff competition for top-three berths and Dnepr cannot afford many more slip-ups. Traditional frontrunners Dinamo, Zhodino, FC BATE Borisov and FC Gomel are jockeying for those positions, along with less-fancied 2004/05 Belarus Cup winners FC MTZ-RIPO Minsk, FC Naftan Novopolotsk, FC Lokomotiv Minsk, FC Dinamo Brest and Darida.
Dinamo are one of the form teams, brushing aside Gomel 3-1 before the thrashing of Dnepr. In between they drew 1-1 at Shakhtyor, and coach Aleksandr Ryabokon - the third incumbent of the campaign - looks to be having the desired effect.
Recent weeks have seen a wealth of adventurous football and goals. MTZ-RIPO striker Artem Kontsevoi has scored two hat-tricks, with Shakhtyor's Sergei Nikiforenko and Lokomotiv's Cameroonian forward Simon Atangana also achieving the feat.
Another surprise has been the revival of MTZ-RIPO. They had just four points after six rounds but have since won five from seven to go sixth. In addition, Yuri Puntus's team caused a stir in the UEFA Cup, beating Hungary's Ferencvárosi TC 2-0 in their first qualifying round first leg in Budapest on their European debut. BATE won 1-0 at Georgia's FC Torpedo Kutaisi, but Dinamo are out of the UEFA Champions League, their 1-1 home draw with Anorthosis Famagusta FC being followed by a 1-0 loss in Cyprus.
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