Although the Belarusian Premier League season starts only in April, FC Shakhtyor Soligorsk and FC Dinamo Minsk's preparations are already in full swing as they attempt to break FC BATE Borisov's title stranglehold.
BATE have been crowned champions for the last five years after seven different clubs had finished top between 1996 and 2005. Shakhtyor and Dinamo were among those to lift the trophy, and are now being tipped as BATE's main competitors in 2011.
Indeed, Shakhtyor were the last club to claim the prize prior to BATE's dominance and have extra reason to want to prevail – it is their 50th anniversary. Moreover, Shakhtyor were the closest challengers to Viktor Goncharenko's side last time out, beating them in Borisov en route to recording four more points than the eventual champions in the second half of the campaign.
A slow start had rendered their charge too late, though, and they ended up as runners-up, six points adrift. They also came up short in this month's Commonwealth Cup tournament for the leading teams in the former USSR – losing on penalties to İnter Bakı PİK of Azerbaijan in the final in St Petersburg.
Coach Vladimir Zhuravel nonetheless saw plenty of positives to take home from Russia. "First of all, it was a test of unity and team spirit, not of the club's or players' qualities," he said. "I am upbeat after what I have seen. As a coach I have seen for the first time how this team copes with a tough schedule. We have a good mentality."
The additions of experienced defenders Artyom Chelyadinski and Yuri Kolomyts, and midfielder Viktor Sokol, will only heighten Zhuravel's optimism, while a new contract for Dmitri Komarovski – six goals and 16 assists last season – has helped build a sense of stability.
Dinamo, for their part, fell below expectations with a fourth-place finish – 16 points behind – resulting in Oleg Vasilenko replacing Vladimir Golmak as coach. They have also had an injection of playing talent, with Leonid Kovel and Bruno Zita Mbanangoye joining Belarusian youngsters Aleksandr Bichenko and Sergei Politevich, as well as Brazilian Rafael Ledesma.
"We want to hold our own," said Vasilenko. "Equally, we want to become not just the best team in Belarus, but in all of the Soviet territory. We also want to put in a decent performance in Europe. We have to make our great club even better and reach a new level. We have great traditions and big ambitions, so it is not hard to guess what our aspirations are this season."