Runaway leaders FC Shakhtar Donetsk host FC Volyn Lutsk on Friday as the Ukrainian Premier League resumes after its three-month winter break.
While the Pitmen head into the final 12 rounds 13 points clear of the chasing pack – a record for this stage of the campaign – and have all but secured their seventh title in nine seasons, the race for second and a place in UEFA Champions League qualifying next term is very much on.
So, with two points separating FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, FC Dynamo Kyiv and FC Metalist Kharkiv, all of whom were eliminated from the UEFA Europa League in the round of 32, UEFA.com assesses who is best equipped to finish as runners-up.
Of the three coaches, Dynamo's Oleh Blokhin has spent the least amount of time with his squad, having been appointed in late September and then been admitted to hospital suffering from hypertension. Moreover, the former Ukraine trainer is known for tinkering with his team and, consequently, nobody is quite sure how beneficial the winter months have been for his side's preparation.
Juande Ramos and Myron Markevich, however, have been in situ for much longer and have their sights firmly trained on a ticket for Europe's top club competition. "I don't hide that we want to qualify for the Champions League," said Metalist boss Markevich. "This is the most important objective for us this season."
At first glance, nobody appears to have an advantage. The three contenders have an even split of home and away matches and will all play Shakhtar. However, Metalist are the only one of the trio who must travel to the Donbass Arena, on 27 April.
Dnipro, meanwhile, are still involved in the Ukrainian Cup – Ramos's charges visit Volyn Lutsk in the quarter-finals on 17 April. Three days later they entertain Shakhtar and then journey to the capital to face Dynamo the following week.
There is not a lot between the three squads. Metalist boast an abundance of South American talent but not much by way of local produce. According to league rules, at least four Ukrainian players must be on the pitch at any time. To help meet this criterion, the Yellow-Blues recruited 32-year-old midfielder Oleh Krasnopyorov from FC Vorskla Poltava, though it remains to be seen if he will significantly strengthen Markevich's hand. In another sign of the contrast between the squads, Dnipro and Dynamo each had six players in the last Ukraine selection while Metalist had none.
In Ideye Brown, Dynamo possess one of the division's most potent strikers, the 24-year-old having scored 13 times, second only to Shakhtar's 18-goal Henrikh Mkhitaryan, in the first part of the campaign. "If we are not able to win gold this year then we must finish second," he said. "Dnipro and Metalist are very strong and well organised. However, we are capable of winning all our remaining matches and if we do so second will be ours."
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