May 21, 2009

Just how good is the Ukrainian league, really?

It's good. Real good. Try the best outside the Big Three good. Read on to find out why.

Last year's Ukrainian champs (and runners-up this season) Shakhtar Donetsk (yes that's their logo. Not sure what Waxtap means in Ukrainian or how it factors in) captured its biggest title ever by defeating Werder Bremen at yesterday's UEFA Cup finale in Istanbul. It's an impressive accomplishment for a team that few can claim to have heard of prior to this season. Keeping in mind that Ukraine supplied half of the semifinalists in this year's UEFA Cup tournament (and three of the quarterfinalists), and with the country preparing to co-host the Euro championships in 2012, it naturally begs the question of just how good the Ukrainian Premier Liga is--especially compared to some of the other leagues outside the "Big Three" (that would be England, Spain and Italy). Our view: Very good. No match for the Big Three of course, but comparable to virtually anything else.

Though they needed overtime to win the game, Shakhtar's accomplishment should be no surprise to anybody who has followed the team this year. That includes the Soccer Source ranking committee of course (the folks who bring you the Top 25 (nearly) every week).

Last week, the Ukrainian side made its first push into the Top 10, where they relieved in-country rivals Dynamo Kiev (the other Ukrainian semifinalist and traditionally the more illustrious of the two clubs). Sports betting fans need to take notice Shakhtar Donetsk are the real deal.

Shakhtar have lost just six games all season in all competition. Half of those were in the Champions League group stage: against Barcelona and twice to Sporting Lisbon. The latter two were particularly painful and remain the club's only blemishes on an otherwise superb season. The loss to Barca came at home on the second matchday but only after Shakhtar led for 86 minutes. Then Lionel Messi struck twice, once in the dying moments of stoppage time and Shakhtar's Champions League hopes never really recovered. The two losses to Sporting immediately followed and by the final group stage game at Camp Nou they were headed to the UEFA Cup (they happened to win that game, though it should be noted that Barca had already clinched the group and suited up a bunch of scrubs; no Messi, no Carlos Puyol, no Thierry Henry, no Xavi).

In the UEFA Cup, against the wisdom of football oddsmakers, Shakhtar made short work of Tottenham Hotspur (3-1 on aggregate), CSKA Moscow (2-1), Olympique Marseille (4-1) and Dynamo Kiev (3-1). Each of those is impressive enough in its own right, but we think the win over Marseille is the most telling as far as the Ukrainian league's place is concerned. L'OM sit second in France and still have a (outside) shot at the Ligue Un title.

But just who are these guys anyway? Who do they have on their team? No fewer than five (5) Brazilians make up the team's core, including its entire attack; an attacking midfield of Ilsinho, Jadson and Willian and Luiz Adriano at forward. No surprise then, that the Brazilians supply an overwhelming majority of the team's goals, including both last night (Jadson and Luiz Adriano). Yet to date, only one of these Brazilians has received so much as a look from the country's national team (that would be Ilsinho, who was capped once, in 2007) though Willian was capped at the U-20 level.

It's not just Brazilians though. The club also has Polish (Mariusz Lewandowski), Romanian (Razvan Rat), Czech (Tomáš Hübschman) and Croatian (Darijo Srna, the team's captain) internationals. And of course Ukrainian: goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov and left mid Oleksiy Hai start for club and country, defenders Oleksandr Kucher, Dmytro Chyhrynskyi and Vyacheslav Shevchuk have a few caps to their credit (so does reserve striker Yevhen Seleznyov) and another reserve striker, Oleksandr Hladky, is at 21 one of the bright young hopes for the country (he too is a regular starter for the national team, though not for the club due to the Brazilians).

Interesting stuff, but none of this tells us how good the league is as a whole. Okay, take a look at Dynamo Kiev: The team that won this year's Ukrainian championship also made it to the Champions League and had a slightly better time of it than Shakhtar, drawing Arsenal once and defeating Porto away--a feat only one other European club pulled off this season (Man U. fans know who, of course). In the UEFA Cup it eliminated Valencia, who currently sit fifth in Spain, as well as Paris Saint Germain (fourth in France).

But wait, there was another Ukrainian clubs that played in Europe. Metalist Kharkov won a UEFA Cup group that included Hertha Berlin (fourth in Germany), Benfica Lisbon (third in Portugal), Galatasaray (third in Turkey) and Greek champions Olympiakos. The wins over Galatasaray and Benfica came away and the team did not give up a single goal in the entire group stage. They then eliminated Sampdoria Genoa (okay just 12th in Serie A) before coming up short against Dynamo Kiev in the quarterfinals.

The moral of the story? Pound for pound, we will take the top three clubs in the Ukraine over any other (non Big Three) country's. Disagree? Go ahead and name a country. We dare ya. We double dare ya.


  1. Since I've been double dared . . . wouldn't it be nice if we had another league whose top three went head-to-head with the Ukraine's top three? Oh wait, we do. Sporting CP and Shakhtar Donetsk were in the same Champions League group. Sporting advanced, Shakhtar didn't. Porto and Dynamo Kyiv were in the same Champions League group. Porto advanced. Dynamo didn't. Metalist Kharkiv and Benfica were in the same UEFA Cup group. Metalist advanced, Benfica didn't. By my count, that's two for the Liga Sagres, one for the Ukraine. Advantage, Liga Sagres.

    The Ukrainian clubs did great in the UEFA Cup, but I'm not so quick to recognize the greatness of a league that hasn't put a single club in the final sixteen of the Champions League since Dynamo Kyiv made the second group stage in the 1999/2000 season. (For the record, fifteen different European leagues have done so since that time.)

    Just my two cents. As always, good work on the blog.

  2. Well argued. But hold on a sec: Yes, Porto and Dynamo were in the same Champions League group. And yes, Porto advanced and Dynamo did not. However, when the two teams played each other it was pretty much a wash: Dynamo winning 1-0 at Porto and the Portuguese side returning the favor, 2-1, in Kiev. Metalist won AT Benfica and eliminated them by doing so. And we all saw what happened to Sporting against Bayern Munich. It was ugly. Okay, so Porto had a good run in the Champions League. They are probably the best team of the six (though again, Dynamo played them pretty much to the letter). But you've got to count the Ukrainian clubs' UEFA Cup run for something. Especially considering how bad every Portuguese club but Porto did in Europe.

  3. The top teams are good but as an overall the league is not that strong at least on my opinion.

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  4. Me too agree with LTLM... But I must also say, though the league was not that strong, I enjoyed the match...

  5. "Waxtap"?? I really hope you don't actually believe that's how that's pronounced. :)

  6. While I think this league is good, Germany, Portugal, and France's leagues are still better. Remember the Bremen were without Diego in the Final as well...

  7. W=Sh

    It's in Cyrillic.

  8. I agree with the author. Ukrainian League is actually really good. Not as good as England-Spain-Italy of course.. at least, NOT YET!
    But you can easilly say that Ukrainian League is on the same level as French League.
    But I actually think that Ukrainian League will develop very much in some years. So it's a future major European League. No doubts about that.