Coach Oleg Blokhin
One to Watch Andriy Yarmalenko
With just a few days left untile kick off all of our minds, well most of them at least, will turn away from the domestic football competitions within our own countries, towards the International arena for the eagerly awaited European Championship Finals, to be held in Poland and the Ukraine. At It’s All In The Game, I shall be profiling each of the 16 finalists that will bid to become the champions of Europe until 2016.
In this Euro 2012 profile we come to the co-hosts Ukraine. Ukraine achieved independence as a nation following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. As a result, they only began to compete internationally as a sovereign state in late 1994, having failed to achieve international recognition in time to take part in qualification for the ’94 World Cup in the U.S.A. . Persuading their best players to play for the new state was a difficult task as many initially chose to play for Russia , the direct successor to the old U.S.S.R. team. For a greater understanding of why this happened, it is worth noting that of the Soviet team that started the final of Euro 88 against Holland in West Germany, seven from eleven were Ukrainian.
From these inauspicious beginnings, the Ukraine have improved steadily as a footballing nation, producing such fine talents as Serhiy Rebrov, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk , not to mention national hero Andriy Shevchenko, who in his heyday at AC Milan was rated by many within football to be the best striker in Europe. These players, however, could not bring about successful qualification for major tournaments, although they did come close.
Ukraine haven’t had the best of luck when trying to qualify, missing out at the play-off stage for three tournaments in a row; World Cup 98, Euro 2000 and World Cup 2002. Success did come at last, and it was current coach Oleg Blokhin (his recall as coach bodes well this time around), in his first stint in charge of the national team, who delivered it.
Qualification for World Cup 2006 was Ukraine’s first appearance in a major tournament since gaining their independence. Despite defeat by Spain, victories over Saudi Arabia and Tunisia ensured that the emerged from the group in second place. A penalty shoot-out win over Switzerland in the second round, the match having finished 0-0 (aet), led Ukraine to the quarter finals. There they would came up short against an Italy side who would go on to win the tournament, losing 3-0. Since then, failure to qualify for Euro 2008 was followed up by another play-off defeat, this time to Greece, which denied them a place in South Africa in the summer of 2010.
As co –hosts Ukraine qualified by right for Euro 2012, like Poland they are Championship debutants and, like Poland, their form going into the tournament is difficult to assess given the lack of competitive matches they have played recently. With a FIFA ranking of 50th, Ukraine are, along with the Poles, one of the lowest ranked teams in the tournament, however, this ranking is adversely affected by the fact that they’ve only played friendlies in the last two years.
Friendly results have been mixed for Ukraine in the run-up to Euro 2012. Thumped 4-0 by the Czech Republic in Prague before Christmas, who ruthlessly exposed their frailties in the centre of defence, they picked themselves up enough to record comfortable victories against Bulgaria and Estonia. However in their most recent outing, Ukraine were beaten 3-2 away in Austria showing that the defensive area is still a cause for concern.
The current squad is interesting, however, as it seems to have a good blend of youth and experience. For example, veterans such as Tymoshchuk and Shevchenko are still there with more than two hundred caps between them, but there are several youngsters within the squad who may just add that pace and guile. Just who will play in goal for Ukraine at the tournament is less than clear and, coach, Oleg Blokhin admitting that he is less than confident about any of the three goalkeepers that he’s called up, namely: Oleksandr Goryainov (Metalist Kharkiv), Maxym Koval (Dynamo Kiev) and Andriy Pyatov (Shakhtar Donetsk).
Andriy Yarmalenko in particular can be singled out as one to keep your eye on in the summer; the 22 year old Dynamo Kiev attacker has been hailed in some parts as “the new Shevchenko”, high praise indeed. As this tag suggests, Yarmalenko possesses a great change of pace and an eye for goal, scoring twelve goals in twenty league appearances last season for his club. He has also managed to transfer that goal-scoring form to international level, bagging an impressive seven goals from his twenty caps (Jan 2012).
Placed in group d, Ukraine will face off against Sweden, France and then England in their three group-stage fixtures. France are the hot favourites to win the group, whether they can justify that tag remains to be seen but they are, on paper at least, by far the strongest squad of the four. England are a bit of an unknown quantity under Roy Hodgson, they’ll certainly be tough to break down but may not be too fluent in attack. The key game for Ukraine, as in any major tournament, is their opener against Sweden.
Home advantage will be important for the Ukrainians in what will be only their second experience of playing at a major finals tournament. If they can draw inspiration from what is bound to be an electric atmosphere, rise to the occasion, upset the odds and nick a win against the Scandinavians, who will be equally determined to do the same, then Ukraine have a great chance of going through in second place. Anything less and they could be going out early.
Shevchenko image by Joe Gazman. Fans image by StewieD.