Dnipro threaten Ukraine's duopoly

The Ukraine is its continent's second-largest country, home to skyscraping towers and the world's tallest living man, Leonid Stadnyk. Also within its borders reside two giants of Eastern European football, Dinamo Kiev and Shakhtar Donetsk, who, between them, have finished first and second in the domestic top flight for 11 seasons running.

It is a stunning monopoly, but one, nonetheless, that Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk were determined to crack going into the 2007/08 season. But if their mission was dismissed as fantasy, it is now evident that Oleg Protasov's side pose a genuine threat to their rivals' strangehold. Indeed, as the campaign prepares to resume following its winter recess this weekend, Dnipro proudly head the standings, two points clear of Shakhtar with Dinamo a further two points back in third.

"Almost everybody wrote that the title would be once again decided by Dynamo and Shakhtar," said the club's general director Andriy Stetsenko. "We have already turned a number of heads this season and this has given us great confidence. Everyone connected with Dnipro will be hoping to prove the doubters wrong come the season's end."

Up, down and up again
Dnipro did not take long to signal their intent, scoring after only three minutes in a 2-0 win over Kryvbas that left them top after the opening matchday. Two subsequent victories kept them there, before Dinamo Kiev provided their acid test.

When Serhiy Rebrov fired the defending champions in front after just seven minutes, many felt it was a prelude to a Dinamo rout. It proved, in fact, a wake-up call for Dnipro, who recovered to run out 3-1 winners in their opponents' backyard. By the end of August, they had taken 19 points from a possible 21.

Nevertheless, the skeptics resurfaced the following month, in which the Dnipriany lost three of four outings in the league. "We didn't panic," explained Protasov. "We identified our mistakes and I told the players to believe in themselves."

The former Soviet Union international's advice worked. Dnipro seized maximum points from their remaining seven games in 2007 to reclaim pole position.

Comings and goings
Dnipro allowed promising midfielder Konstyantyn Kravchenko to join Shakhtar during the winter break, but they have replenished their squad considerably.

Among the new faces are Argentinian Osmar Ferreyra, Czech midfielder Mario Holek, Georgia U-21 standout Alexander Kobakhidze, Russia winger Rolan Gusev and forward Ionut Mazilu, who cited Protasov's presence at the controls for his decision to move to the Stadium Meteor: "He has created a strong team here who are fighting for the title and a place in the UEFA Champions League," said the Romanian international.

Protasov recently had his chagres in Turkey, where they partook in a series of friendlies geared at preparing them for a title tilt. "This training camp is planned to shape our squad. The players understand the high cost of leadership and value it accordingly," explained the coach.

Dnipro, who remain one of only five ever-presents in the Ukrainian Premier League, have made great strides in recent years. However, their success so far this term - and recent spending spree - has raised hope among their supporters that a first trophy since 1989 is heading towards their cabinet.

Protasov, nevertheless, remains cautious on the club's immediate ambitions. "We are not ready to trumpet about the UEFA Champions League yet. Of course we're going to try and win the championship but everyone knows it is harder to hold on to this position than to reach it," he warned.

If Dnipro see off Dinamo at home on their return to action on Sunday, it will become increasingly difficult for Protasov to dilute the supporters' expectations.