Artem Dovbyk’s path from Ukraine’s third tier to La Liga’s finest finisher

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Artem Dovbyk;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Artem Dovbyk</a> is a transfer target for Atlético Madrid.</span><span>Photograph: Pat Elmont/Uefa/Getty Images</span>

It was January 2018 when Midtjylland moved for a striker they had been watching for six months. Artem Dovbyk had been playing in Ukraine’s third tier for most of that time but the 20-year-old had something different. Rather than being dragged into the morass around him he had risen above it, handling himself physically against grizzled opponents and scoring almost a goal a game. The Danish club needed a replacement for Alexander Sørloth, who was about to earn them a windfall by joining Crystal Palace. That transfer went through and, on the same day, Dovbyk’s arrival from Dnipro was confirmed. The towering No 9s were ships in the Jutland night.

Last season their worlds collided at last. Dovbyk’s hat-trick for Girona against Granada in May meant he leapfrogged Sørloth, now of Villarreal, in a two-way contest to be La Liga’s top scorer. The vaunted Pichichi was his and, from nowhere, he had become one of the most sought-after centre-forwards in the world. The 26-year-old will lead the line for Ukraine when they begin their Euro 2024 campaign against Romania on Monday and it is a far cry from the early years of a career in which, for all his raw promise, little has come easy.

Related: Euro 2024 team guides part 20: Ukraine

It is also a tribute to Midtjylland’s ability to think outside the box. But Dovbyk was branded a failure after a barren three years in Denmark. Three seasons, including a loan spell at Sønderjyske, brought only three goals and an early cruciate injury that ruined the settling-in process. “I wasn’t ready at all,” he admitted. “I didn’t know the language [but] I got fired up, everything was beautiful and I decided to go. At first the adaptation was normal. But the injury knocked me out and it took about two years to recover.”

Despite the element of ill luck it felt a familiar tale of a callow talent taking, and missing, his shot at a transformative move abroad. Dovbyk had to start again at Dnipro-1, the successor club to his previous employers, but perhaps it helped that bumps in the road were hardly new. As a teenager at his home town club, Slavutych Cherkasy, he had been on the verge of a move to Metalist Kharkiv when injury struck. After making his senior debut at 17 and quickly scoring goals two divisions below the top level, a move to Dynamo Kyiv was mooted but fell through.

Eventually Dovbyk joined Dnipro, who had just finished runners-up in the 2014-15 Europa League. Opportunities were scarce initially and, if he needed an early reality check, it came in a bizarre loan move to the Moldovan club Zaria Balti. “The story of my stay there was somewhat confusing,” Dovbyk said. “They couldn’t tell me why I missed eight or nine matches. I trained for a month and a half but I couldn’t play. Either they couldn’t announce me at the club, or they didn’t want to. It turns out I became victim of some internal intrigues.” Eventually he played four games in Moldova and did not get off the mark.

Another loan, this time to Volyn Lutsk, was lined up before Dovbyk was reprieved and given an extended run for a now cash-strapped Dnipro who were floundering under heavy debts. They were relegated two divisions in 2016-17 and it was in the following season, far from all bar the most dedicated gazes, that he began pulling defences apart.

Danish defences proved somewhat wiser and, upon joining Dnipro-1 in the summer of 2020, Dovbyk looked to start again. “I felt something was wrong somewhere, a kind of stagnation had begun,” he said. “I wanted to reboot, and I knew I would be able to do it best in Ukraine.” At 23, it was a risk to return but there has been no looking back.

He had been a surprise call-up to the Ukraine squad before joining Midtjylland: perhaps Andriy Shevchenko saw something of himself in a player with explosive power and clean ball-striking ability. But it was March 2021 when he made it on to the pitch and then, three months later, he produced one of the most famous moments of the country’s recent sporting history in poaching a last-gasp winner in the Euro 2020 last-16 tie with Sweden.

That was Dovbyk’s announcement to the European public. The goals had started to flow with Dnipro-1 too and his tally over the next season and a half, 43 in 57 games, was all the more remarkable given most of those efforts came amid the strain and air raid-induced interruption of wartime football. Dnipro-1 knew a star was blossoming and would quote figures north of £10m to suitors, who generally balked.

Dovbyk may have been unstoppable domestically but the Ukrainian league had dipped in quality since Russia’s full-scale invasion and bravura performances in front of empty stands were viewed cautiously. International performances were a good measure, though, and by the end of 2022 he had become a regular scorer for Ukraine. Premier League and top Championship clubs tracked Dovbyk closely into the first half of 2023 but nobody took the plunge despite his willingness to, as he put it, “try my hand” in foreign climes again.

In the end Girona moved fastest, paying Dnipro-1 £7m for about 70% of his rights in a complex deal in which Midtjylland – who had retained a half share when he left them – hold the other 30%. It means Midtjylland are likely to be rewarded heavily this summer for their foresight. Atlético Madrid are frontrunners for his signature for a fee that would blow those investments out of the water.

Everything clicked for Dovbyk upon arriving in Catalonia. Sometimes the fit is just right and it helped that the winger Viktor Tsyhankov, an international teammate, was already there. Even his staunchest advocate, though, could not have predicted what followed. DOvbyk knows how to bully defenders but can work the channels and bring others into play; he is more mobile than initial impressions suggest and, while comparisons to Erling Haaland may be extreme, has elevated himself to the continent’s elite by wringing every drop from his attributes.

Dovbyk has, in the form of Sørloth, overhauled one rival striker. Maybe he can defeat the odds again and sit on top of the charts over the next month in Germany. After one false start, his ascent has irresistible momentum.