Dnipro finally experiencing some good luck in the UEFA Europa League
Napoli manager Rafa Benitez was incensed at the press conference after his club drew 1-1 with Dnipro in the first leg of Europa League semifinals last Thursday, having witnessed Yevhen Seleznyov scoring the equalizer from a very obvious offside position.
His president, Aurelio De Laurentiis, was even more blatant when criticizing the officials. "Dnipro had six referees on their side," he claimed and went as far as personally accusing UEFA president Michel Platini of mistreating the club.
Ironically enough, that wasn't the biggest slice of luck the Ukraininans have enjoyed during their European campaign this season.
They were extremely fortunate to survive the group stages, helped by a decision that took place in their absence. Dnipro were on their way out of the competition when Qarabag scored the winner deep into injury time of the last fixture against Inter, only to see their totally legitimate goal mysteriously disallowed.
The brave Azeri side played their hearts out and deserved their place in the knockout stages but Dnipro qualified at their expense, and never looked back.
They scored just four goals in six group stage games, and their further progress was far from spectacular either. Dnipro overcame Olympiakos in the round of 32 thanks to a 2-0 home first leg win in a very poor game. They beat Ajax in extra time in the Round of 16 after each side won their home fixture 1-0 in 90 minutes, and overrun Club Brugge in the quarterfinals thanks to a late winner in the return leg, just when it looked like all 180 minutes between them will end up goalless.
Such style is incomparable to Dynamo Kiev who thrashed Everton for five in the last 16, but the team from the capital lost to Fiorentina in the quarterfinals, while stable Dnipro are still with us.
That attitude is hardly surprising. Long-time Liverpool target Yevhen Konoplyanka is the only flair player in a rather workmanlike squad, and all credit goes to the wily coach Myron Markevych for forming a tough outfit based on teamwork and positional awareness. The 64-year-old specialist, who is very highly rated in his country, is quite flexible tactically, able to choose different approaches based on the players at his disposal and the opponents.
Markevych spent nine years at Metalist Kharkiv between 2005-14, building a spectacular team of South Americans that played inventive attacking football and scored a lot of outrageously beautiful goals. Yet at Dnipro, he puts emphasis on defence, first and foremost. Keeping possession is extremely important for the boss, and he was caught swearing at his players during the last minutes of the game at Napoli, angry with them for sending aimless long balls directly to the opposition.
In fact, Dnipro are lucky to have Markevych on the bench. He never intended to leave Metalist, who achieved superb results in Europa League over the years and reached the quarterfinals in 2012.
However, the club was thrown into complete disarray when the corrupt owner Serhiy Kurchenko ran away after former Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych fled the country. The coach was forced to resign from his beloved team, while Dnipro were looking for a top candidate to replace the outgoing Spaniard Juande Ramos. They suited each other perfectly last May.
Dnipro benefited from the tense political situation in Ukraine once more in the summer. Initially, they inexplicably decided against offering the long-serving captain Ruslan Rotan a new contract, and the 33-year-old midfielder was close to joining Rubin Kazan. However, he changed his mind when Russian involvement in the military crisis intensified.
"Rubin made me a good offer, and I am very thankful to them. Nevertheless, I told them that I won't move because of the current state of events," he explained.
Thus, Dnipro unexpectedly got a chance to acknowledge their mistake and re-sign their most experienced player. Rotan received his armband back and has been outstanding throughout the season. His contribution is especially important in Europe, and now he finds himself within touching distance of an unexpected trophy.
It could be a historic success of massive proportions for the club that has always been in the shade of their more illustrious rivals. Dynamo Kiev were the only team to win a European competition in Soviet times, lifting the Cup Winners' Cup twice, in 1975 and 1986.
Dnipro were largely seen as sort of a feeding club by famous Dynamo Kyiv manager Valery Lobanovsky, who notably signed two of the best ever players to grow up in Dnipropetrovsk academy, Oleg Protasov and Gennady Litovchenko, in 1987. A year later, Dnipro won their second Soviet title against all odds, in a very sweet revenge, but sadly for them those were their last gold medals to date.
In spite of significant investments by the owner, the banking tycoon Igor Kolomoisky, they were never able to fight the rich empire of Shakhtar Donetsk and the traditional force of Dynamo. During the last decade, Dnipro usually finished fourth, prompting Ramos to claim that not everything is clean in Ukrainian football.
"Everyone knows how the league will finish before it starts. Dnipro can't win the title," the Spaniard said in October 2013.
Remarkably, the team was able to finish second for the first time in two decades last season, but that didn't change the feelings of the fans.
That is why their current experience in Europe is so refreshingly different. Instead of complaining with the referees, as Ramos used to do, they are suddenly seeing the opponents angry with the men in black. They feel that luck might be on their side this time.
Six years after Shakhtar won the last edition of UEFA Cup, they might be able to become the first Eastern European side to win the Europa League. The fact that the final takes place nearby in Warsaw makes them even more optimistic. Dnipro know that Napoli must still be considered favourites in the return leg on Thursday, but things could just continue going their way nevertheless.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin