It is in keeping with Ukraine’s defiant spirit as it combats the Russian invasion that this season’s Ukrainian Premier League, which resumes on Monday after a winter hiatus, might be remembered for football reasons as much as for the fact the competition is being played against the backdrop of war.

For the first time in more than 30 years, the title looks like it could be heading to somewhere other than either of Ukraine’s traditional football powerhouses, Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv, with SC Dnipro-1 having carved out a slim but significant lead at the top heading into the second half of the season.

Here’s a look at the country’s most fascinating title race in a generation ahead of the league’s resumption.

Who are SC Dnipro-1?

The club from the industrial eastern city of Dnipro – formerly Dnipropetrovsk – were founded only in 2017, stepping into the shoes of the bankrupt FC Dnipro who were the Europa League’s surprise runners-up two years earlier, losing in the final to Sevilla.

The current incarnation entered the winter break with a five-point lead on Shakhtar and the champions Dynamo Kyiv, thanks in part to the goalscoring exploits of the league’s leading scorer Artem Dovbyk.

The 25-year-old’s defining moment until now has been the dramatic last-gasp extra-time header he scored for Ukraine against Sweden at Hampden Park to earn his country a Euro 2020 quarter-final, but helping fire SC Dnipro to an historic, unprecedented title this season would eclipse that.

Their head coach is the Kyiv-born former Shakhtar defender Oleksandr Kucher, a UEFA Cup winner with the team from Donbas in 2009 who, in just his second managerial job, finds himself in touching distance of keeping the title away from two cities he knows intimately for the first time since 1992.

Are Shakhtar and Dynamo Kyiv still in the race?

  1. Dnipro-1 – 35 points (14 games played)
  2. Shakhtar Donetsk – 30 points (13 games)
  3. Dinamo Kyiv – 30 points (15 games)
  4. Zorya – 28 points (15 games)
  5. Oleksandriya – 24 points (13 games)

Absolutely. The pair sit second and third, both five points off Dnipro, but Shakhtar have two games in hand on their rivals from the capital and crucially, one on the leaders with which they could cut the gap to two points.

Given the history, and that Dnipro still have to face Shakhtar in virtually the last week of the season, one could say it is Shakhtar’s title to lose. The 2-1 defeat against the leaders in November was their only domestic loss of the season, and it remains fresh in the memory that abandonment of the competition last season robbed them of the chance to regain their crown from Dynamo Kyiv.

As for the champions themselves, they are unlikely to let go lightly of a title it took them five years to win back. Seeing it go to Dnipro rather than their arch rivals from Donetsk would be of no consolation if Mircea Lucescu’s team should fail.

If Dnipro and Dynamo are looking for reasons to be optimistic about their chances, how about the £88million hole left in Shakhtar’s attack by the sale of top scorer Mykhailo Mudryk to Chelsea?

Why is this season shaping up differently?

Not since 1992, when Tavriya Simferopol took the inaugural Vyshcha Liha title to Crimea, has a side other than the big two won the league, but this is a season like no other in Ukraine.

FIFA’s ruling last year allowing foreign players to suspend their contracts has had the effect of levelling the playing field somewhat, with Shakhtar in particular – European pioneers in the unearthing and developing of young South American talent – having had the guts ripped out of their team.

This season, the Ukrainian league is exactly that, a rare example of one of Europe’s elite divisions made up almost entirely of native-born players, and it has disproportionately rocked the top two. Other clubs have inevitably lost key squad members, but like in all countries the top sides have the pick of the imports, and there has been a seismic shake-up in the league’s competitive balance.

How has the war affected football?

The league is being played without spectators for obvious security reasons, but there have also been restrictions on which stadiums can be used. Matches have been taking place in Kyiv city, the wider Kyiv region, Lviv and Zakarpattia, cities far from the country’s east where the fighting is fiercest.

Clubs have reconfigured their squads with the majority of foreign players having relocated either temporarily or for good, but for Ukrainian-born players it is business (almost) as usual.

Clubs have kept with the tradition of spending the winter break overseas with most spending time in Turkey, playing a familiar round of friendlies against sides from other countries where the leagues pause for winter.

Dnipro and Shakhtar, meanwhile, have already returned to competitive action this month, playing in the Europa Conference League and Europa League play-offs respectively.

What other stories are there as the league gets ready to restart?

The biggest story in Ukrainian football, other than the war, is now two-and-a-half years old but never gets any less gripping – the presence of head coach Lucescu, the eight-time title winner with Shakhtar, in the Dynamo Kyiv dugout.

When the Romanian was installed in 2020, an appointment roughly the equivalent of Manchester United great  Sir Alex Ferguson taking over at Liverpool, the backlash from Dynamo supporters was so fierce that Lucescu tried to resign after a matter days. The parties made it work, and he has since added a ninth league title to the ones he won with the club’s bitterest rivals Shakhtar.

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