The new season in Belarus kicks off with two fewer clubs in the top flight than last year.

By Oleg Zadernovsky in Minsk
The new season kicks off with hopes that a reduced top division – there are 14 teams this year, rather than 16 – will improve the quality of the league.

Reigning champions BATE Borisov start as clear favourites to win a fourth successive league title after their young and ambitious coach, Viktor Goncharenko, persuaded most of his best players to stay. One exception was striker Vitali Rodionov, who has been loaned out to German second division side Freiburg. The Belarus international Vitali Bulyga has been recruited from Russia’s Luch-Energiya Vladivostok as his replacement.

Dinamo Minsk, led by the wily Slavoljub Muslin, are expected to put up a strong challenge to BATE. They reinforced during the transfer window by signing the vastly experienced Sergei Gurenko from Lokomotiv Moscow and the talented Anton Putsilo from Hamburg. Bosnian defender Zdravko Saraba, signed from Sarajevo, will be given a pivotal role in defence.

Muslin has demanded that Dinamo fight for the league title as never before, saying: “We all knew that the fans of our club enjoyed the league success in 2004. After some considerable signings, plus our promising starlets, we can end the monopoly of BATE this year.”

Shakhtyor, from the mining city of Soligorsk, are expected to be the main candidates for the UEFA Cup spot. After the miners reached the Cup Final and finished fourth in the league last year, their frustrated coach Yuri Vergeichik surprisingly resigned. However, chairman Fedor Baranovski persuaded him to change his mind with a promise to strengthen the squad. He kept his word and brought in defender Pavel Plaskonny from Panionios of Greece, midfielder Aliaxei Suchkov from Kharkiv of Ukraine and Roman Kirenkin from Liaoning of China.

Vitebsk are expected to rival Shakhtyor for the UEFA Cup spot as coach Aliaksandr Khatskevich, a former pupil of Dynamo Kyiv boss Valeriy Lobanovskyi, has a strong mix of experienced and promising youngsters at his disposal.

Ex-head coach of the national Under-19 side, Sergey Solodovnikov has ambitious plans to take Dnepr into the top six, which is where Vyacheslav Arushanov will be hoping to keep Dinamo Brest.

With financial backing from a local oil refinery, Naftan are confident of securing their usual place in mid-table, as are Gomel, who have a stable structure funded by the local council.
Alexander Lisovsky, the 33-year-old coach of Smorgon will rely on local youngsters after the departures of several key foreigners.

Granit are the only club using a three-man defensive formation and their squad is packed with experience. They also have new signings in ex-Dynamo Kyiv forward Vladimir Makovsky and defender Dmitri Chaley from Shakhtyor.

A lack of finances has seriously affected MTZ-RIPO, the club sponsored by Lithuanian businessman Vladimir Romanov, who also owns Scottish club Hearts. A repeat of last year’s heroics, when they finished third, is unlikely and even relegation cannot be excluded.

A small squad is the biggest headache for Torpedo Zhodino coach Oleg Kubarev. Much of their hopes rest with new signing Serhiy Kovalenko, a Ukrainian striker who is a graduate of the Juventus youth system and spent time at Standard Liege.

Meanwhile, Neman will struggle for the place in the elite division after their best forward Aleksandr Alumona opted to join BATE, and promoted side FC Minsk are favourites to go straight back down.

Key dates
Season starts: April 4, 2009
Season ends: November 8, 2009
BFA Cup Final: May 31, 2009