The Ukrainian season starts this weekend and FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk coach Juande Ramos is adamant that FC Shakhtar Donetsk and FC Dynamo Kyiv can be caught.
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Fourth in the Ukrainian Premier League in his first season at FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, coach Juande Ramos's sights are now trained on ending the 19-year title hegemony of FC Dynamo Kyiv and FC Shakhtar Donetsk.
Ever since SC Tavriya Simferopol claimed the first Ukrainian crown in 1992, Shakhtar – current titleholders – and Dynamo have shared the glory, and once again they are favourites to prevail in 2011/12. However, Ramos's Dnipropetrovsk, a team transformed by the Spaniard's arrival last October, and FC Metalist Kharkiv, third last term, may beg to differ.
Certainly, Ramos's impressive nine-month tenure has ensured that his side are not only in the UEFA Europa League play-offs but also aiming at the Premier-Liha's highest echelons when the new campaign starts on Friday.
"My assistants and I were pretty clear about why we came here," Ramos, who won two UEFA Cups and one UEFA Super Cup with Sevilla FC, told UEFA.com. "Dnipro are looking to end the domestic dominance of Dynamo and Shakhtar, and as ambitious coaches we took that challenge."
Former Tottenham Hotspur FC, Real Madrid CF and PFC CSKA Moskva boss Ramos, who signed a four-year contract, is adamant progress should be made not only on the pitch. "We should be moving forward all the time," the 56-year-old continued. "We should perfect our game, develop the infrastructure and care about future generations of players. The quicker we finish with this preparatory period, the quicker we raise the bar.
"The situation improved from matchday to matchday last season and the performances towards the end really pleased me. We almost beat Shakhtar away from home. Even though that match ended 0-0, the emotions were all positive. However, another big game for us, against Metalist Kharkiv in March, was completely the opposite. Having led 2-0 and thrown away chances for a third goal, we allowed them to get a draw. I was very disappointed."
Such disappointment indicates how expectations have risen at the club from central eastern Ukraine; a series of impressive recruits are also fostering hope. "Giuliano, Samuel Inkoom and Ivan Strinić are promising young players," Ramos said of his acquisitions. "They have already done well and in the future they will fulfil their potential. We just need to be patient."
Another starlet is 21-year-old midfielder Yevhen Konoplyanka, young player of last season but unable to live up to his previous standards at this summer's UEFA European Under-21 Championship. "At this age it is hard to be consistent, so spells like the one he had in Denmark during the U21s can occur. Yevhen is still very talented and will get better."
It is as a team and as a club, however, that Dnipro must flourish if they are to topple the established order, beginning against FC Arsenal Kyiv on Monday. "The level of the league is growing and I hope this season is even more interesting," said Ramos. "I expect a tight battle for relegation and for the title. I hope the fans will be watching not only Dynamo v Shakhtar with great interest."