The 13th Belarussian first division season gets under way on 18 April with further games the following day, having been delayed by a week due to bad weather. The first round of fixtures will now be played on 22 June.
No side have mounted a successful defence of the title since 1995, when FC Dinamo Minsk claimed their fifth successive championship. This season, however, FC BATE Borisov are confident of breaking this run, with coach Yuri Puntus optimistic about his side's chances of retaining their title.
"We have an aim. I am a kind of person who always wants to win in every competition and it does not matter if it is football or something else," he said. "
We are motivated to retain the title. I also dream of winning the [Belarus] Cup and sometimes dreams come true."
The club are also looking further afield this season. "We are aiming to pass the first two qualifying rounds of the [UEFA] Champions League; if we reach the third round, we will guarantee ourselves the continuation of our European campaign, either in the Champions League group stage or the UEFA Cup," BATE president Anatoli Kapski said. "Domestically, we are aiming for the top two places which guarantee European qualification."
BATE were formed in 1996 and joined the top flight two seasons later. They have gone on to make a significant impact in the five seasons since, finishing third, second twice and winning two league championships. In the close season, Artem Kontsevoi has moved to FC Spartak Moskva, while Vadim Skripchenko has joined Shakhtior Soligorsk on a season-long loan.
In their place, BATE have signed experienced defender Aleksandr Sednev, while three players have joined from FC Belshina Bobruisk; Valeri Stripeikis, last season's top scorer with 18 goals in 24 league games, and promising youngsters Oleg Shkabary and Dmitri Rubnenko.
Having finished seventh last season, FC Dinamo Minsk have appointed Georgi Gyurov as coach as they seek a first title since 1997. "I can only compliment all the First Division teams; if a club is in the top flight, it means it is good," said Gyurov. "
I am satisfied with what we have done [here]. We prepared ourselves very well at pre-season training camps in Cyprus, Italy and Poland."
The other teams are unlikely to win the championship, but Puntus disagrees with the suggestion that Dinamo will be BATE's only title rivals. "We respect all rivals," he said. "However, the reality is that not all of them can win the championship. Apart from Dinamo, I think that we will be also challenged by Shakhtior, FC Gomel, FC Neman Grodno, FC Torpedo-SKA Minsk and FC Torpedo Zhodino. I will not be surprised if one of those teams wins the title."
This season the league has been extended from 14 to 16 teams. FC Lokomotiv-96 Vitebsk were relegated while FC Darida Zhdanovichi, FC Naftan-Devon Novopolotsk and FC Lokomotiv Minsk won promotion to the top flight.
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