By Igor Linnyk & Pavle Gognidze
While Ukrainian giants FC Shakhtar Donetsk and FC Dynamo Kyiv were occupied with UEFA Champions League qualifiers, FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk went and stole the Premier League high ground. And they are in no rush to give it back.
Eight games into the season, Dnipro lead the table with 20 points and FC Arsenal Kyiv are a point behind in second. Shakhtar are third and Dynamo fourth, albeit only three and four points off the pace.
The re-emergence of Dnipro, twice winners of the old Soviet Supreme League, is synonymous with the comeback of their influential coach Yevhen Kucherevskyi. It was under his command that Dnipro made the history books last, winning the Soviet title in 1988 and the USSR Cup the following season.
After a spell in Russia, Kucherevskyi returned to his native Dnipropetrovsk at the beginning of this year. He has already made some important additions to his squad: midfield players Andriy Polunin and Dmytro Mykhaylenko returned from their spells in Germany and Israel, while Hennadiy Moroz and Oleh Venglunskyi have arrived from Dynamo while Ruslan Kostyshin . joined from FC Arsenal Kyiv. Then there is Georgian striker Mihail Potskhveria, the club's first foreign player, signed from FC Merani-91 Tbilisi.
Kucherevskyi has got the best out of his players, new and old. After the opening few games, he said: "Our forwards do not score enough. But attack is not just two people - it is the whole midfield line as well, and these players are not doing enough." Dnipro responded to the words of their coach by scoring 13 goals in their next five domestic games.
'A more dynamic side'
The tactics have changed under Kucherevskyi to a 3-5-2 formation, making Dnipro only the second team in Ukraine, after Shakhtar, to play with three defenders. "I want us to play attacking football, I want us to look for chances on the other end," he said. "We need to learn to create. I already see that we have become a more dynamic side, who do not just wait for opponents' mistakes."
This positive approach implemented by Kucherevskyi has helped take Dnipro to the top of the Premier League for the first time since 1996. The best example was a tough trip to Odessa, where Dnipro kept going forward before finally unlocking the FC Chernomorets Odesa defence with five minutes to go - a display of mental resilience not seen for a long time in the Dnipropetrovsk side.
Changes to defence
Kucherevskyi, renowned for his radical and clever solutions, has made major changes to the Dnipro defence as well. Not only did he switch to three defenders, but also, following an injury to sweeper Volodymyr Gerashenko, he used in his place the attacking midfield player Moroz, newly arrived from Dynamo. It has proved a wise move, as Dnipro have conceded only four goals in eight games this season.
In recognition of their fine start to the season, three Dnipro players were included in the Ukraine squad for the EURO 2004™ qualifier against Armenia - the first such occasion in ten years. Moroz and Volodymyr Yezerskyi started in the back line against Armenia, while Roman Maximyuk was brought in as a substitute in a 2-2 draw.
There seems little danger of complacency given the driving ambition of Kucherevskyi whose budget is considerably smaller than that of his counterparts at Shakhtar, Dynamo or even Arsenal. "We've had enough of seeing the back of our big clubs. The time has come to start beating them. I am happy my players understand what we are trying to do", Kucherevskyi said. The perfect opportunity will come in early November when Dnipro take on Shakhtar and Dynamo in quick succession. Whether they do so as leaders remains to be seen.
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