Famous for its Slavonic Market music festival, the Belarussian city of Vitebsk has got a football club worth singing about six games into the new season.
Top of the Vysshaya Liga after six games, and three points clear of second-placed FC MTZ-RIPO Minsk with a game in hand, FC Vitebsk are showing real civic pride under coach Yury Konoplev, who took charge last season having also represented his hometown club as a player. After some lean years, it seems the two-time Belarussian league runners-up are on song again.
Back in the days of the Soviet Union, Vitebsk were one of Belarus' strongest sides, playing in the second division in the USSR. After independence, Vitebsk did well, finishing second in 1993 and 1995 and third in 1994 and 1997, while they won the Belarussian Cup in 1998. However, they were relegated in 2002 and 2004, bouncing straight back up on each occasion.
Sixth and eighth-placed finishes in 2006 and 2007 marked a welcome end to the club's yo-yo years, and now in 2008 it seems they are ready to battle with the best again. The arrivals of Armenians Alexander Tadevosyan and Artur Voskanyan, former FC Spartak Moskva player Eduard Mor and skilful striker Artem Goncharik in the winter have left them a squad that is the envy of many of their rivals.
Opening results this season have been tremendous. Vitebsk already have 13 more points than they did at the same stage last season, and have proved they are no flash in the pan with 2-1 away wins against FC Dinamo Minsk, MTZ-RIPO and FC Gomel. Winter signings notwithstanding, the star of the show so far has been forward Ruslan Usov, who has scored four goals and set up two more.
'Our last battle'
"The coaching staff have put together a great team," said Uslov, now in his fourth season at Vitebsk. "Thanks to them we are playing every match like it is our last battle." He added: "I have only had one start to a season like this before: in 2003 with Gomel, when we won the title. That team was stronger than Vitebsk but coach Sergey Podpaly had almost three years to build it."
Before the season, Konoplev said: "Our goal is a European finish. We don't lack anything. Most clubs should envy us. On the other hand, the board wants a lot from us immediately, but any coach or player wants the best. We should not set any targets until five or six games into the season." Top of the league, it seems that Vitebsk's owners' demands were not quite as ambitious as they first seemed.
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