By Denis Orlov
FC Dinamo Minsk launch the defence of their Belarussian Premier League title away to FC MTZ-RIPO Minsk on Saturday with coach Yuri Shukanov confident his side can prevail again.
"I think we have a pretty good squad - there are two skilled players competing for each position," Shukanov said. "We have promoted some youngsters from the reserves and they will strengthen our team when they get the chance to play."
Dinamo won the league for the seventh time last season, seven years after their previous triumph. But history is against them repeating the feat - since Dinamo claimed the last of five successive championships in 1995, no team have retained the title.
The addition of former Belarus and FC Torpedo Moskva defender Aliaksandr Lukhvich and Brazilian playmaker Edu, considered the most skilful player in the league, strengthens a squad depleted only by the loss of Viktor Sokol, who has joined FC Dinamo Brest after failing to earn a regular place.
Shukanov believes Dinamo's main challengers will be FC BATE Borisov, FC Shakhtyor Soligorsk and, surprisingly, MTZ-RIPO, who finished 14th last term. BATE, two-times Belarussian champions, were second but have a new-look team following the departures of coach Yury Puntus and the spine of their squad - Yuri Zhevnov, Evgeni Loshankov, Oleg Shkabara, Aleh Strakhanovich, Valeri Tarasenko and Henadz Mardas.
Aliaksandr Baranov, Aliaksandr Fedorovic and Pavel Begansky are BATE's key signings, and chairman Anatoly Kapsky has warned against discounting his side. "We'll try to win first place and fight for the cup," he said.
Shakhtyor are aiming to improve on last year's third place, while the arrival of Puntus as coach has raised expectations at MTZ-RIPO who reached the 2004 Belarus Cup semi-finals. FC Torpedo Zhodino, FC Gomel, FC Naftan Novopolotsk, Brest and FC Transmash Mogilev also look strong, so it promises to be an interesting campaign.
The league will also be reduced in size this season from 16 to 14 teams after FC Vedrich-97 Rechitsa and FC Torpedo-SKA Minsk were refused top-flight licences by the Football Federation of Belarus. They will compete in the second and third divisions respectively.
©UEFA.com 1998-2017. All rights reserved.