Oligarch-backed top four improving
6 November ~ Last month saw two landmark victories for Ukrainian clubs in European competition, as Shakhtar Donetsk overcame holders Chelsea in the Champions League and Dnipro beat Napoli 3-1 in the Europa League. With Shakhtar, Dnipro and Metalist Kharkiv all top their respective groups and Dinamo Kiev still in the hunt for a knock-out spot, Ukraine has four sides in contention for European progress. Such plurality may create the impression that the depth of quality within the Ukrainian Premier League is improving.
But in reality the strength of the league is firmly held by the leading quartet. None of the current top four have finished outside those positions since 2006 and Ukraine's two other European representatives, Metalurh Donetsk and Arsenal Kiev, were both eliminated in the qualifying rounds of the Europa League by opposition from Norway and Slovenia.
Metalist and Dnipro are the new challengers at the top. Both have substantial oligarchy backing, allowing them to renovate or rebuild their stadiums and recruit foreign talent. However, neither have penetrated the Shakhtar-Dinamo duopoly at the top and this hierarchical inertia has led to Europe becoming the stage for these clubs to illustrate their progress.
As well as the exposure that continental competition offers, the financial rewards of UEFA competition are markedly larger than what is on offer domestically. A Metalist official once admitted to me that the club had to prioritise the Europa League as even a modest run in the tournament multiplies the club's broadcasting revenues.
Such concerns are less pressing in Donetsk where Shakhtar are renowned for the bumper salaries they offer to recruit and retain star players. Owner Rinat Akhmetov's spending is unmatched but the other three clubs are also far from self-sustaining. In Kiev, Ihor Surkis – brother of former Ukrainian Football Federation chief, Hryhoriy – has led a recruitment drive which has returned the club to the Champions League for the first time in four years.
Dnipro are coached by former Tottenham manager Juande Ramos. The Spaniard has found it difficult to win over local supporters, who remain sceptical that his reported €4 million (£3.2m) salary was the main motivation for joining. The club caught attention as one of the biggest spenders in Europe during the in the 2010 winter transfer but are yet to break into the top three. Their owner is Ihor Kolomoyskyi, an outspoken oligarch who is ranked third on the country's rich list.
Metalist are the project of Kharkiv businessman Oleksandr Yaroslavsky, a former member of the Soviet army whose money almost single-handedly projected Kharkiv on to the list of Euro 2012 host cities. An extremely motivated figure – he wakes at 6am to go swimming and do a six-mile cross-country run before starting work each day – Yaroslavsky claims to have little time for politics, which does wonders for his popularity. He readily admits that he will see no return for his investment in Metalist other than profits in "the soul, heart and fun".
The financial clout of the clubs' oligarchy owners means that the leading quartet look set to remain untouched for the foreseeable future. But with Shakhtar already boasting a 12 point lead in the domestic championship, Europe looks set to remain the main focus for Ukraine's big four. Marcus Haydon