Like Poland, Ukraine would certainly have struggled to qualify for Euro 2012 if they were not the co-hosts. Indeed, this is the first Euro finals that Ukraine have qualified for as an independent nation (they also have one World Cup quarter-final to their name from 2006). The team currently ranked 50th in the world by FIFA are not truly gifted in any area of the pitch, and the country has recently been rocked by political controversy. But, with a national legend at the helm and all the benefits of playing ‘at home’ for the group stage at least, Ukraine may be able to muster a surprise.
Searching for positives, manager Oleh Blokhin might point to his squad’s relative blend of youth and experience. Players in their early twenties, such as Denys Harmash and Yaroslav Rakitskiy can provide drive, whilst benefiting from the huge experience of players such as Andriy Shevchenko. Furthermore, aside from Anatoliy Tymoshchuk (Bayern Munich) and Andriy Voronin (Dynamo Moscow), the entire squad plays their club football within Ukraine, largely for the two giants of Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk, which should help with cohesion at the tournament itself. The value of home support cannot be underestimated either. In the midst of the political scandal surrounding the imprisonment of popular former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukrainian fans are likely to express their national pride more loudly than ever, creating a fantastic atmosphere.
This is the first Euro finals that Ukraine have qualified for as an independent nation
The selection issues facing Blokhin, though, would give any manager in the world a headache. His three first-choice goalkeepers are all unavailable: Kyiv’s 92-cap veteran Oleksandr Shovkovskiy (shoulder injury), Spartak Moscow’s Andriy Dikan (facial injury), and Shakhtar’s Oleksandr Rybka (suspended on doping charges). Andriy Pyatov, Rybka’s deputy in Donetsk, will step in, but any further upset between the posts could be disastrous. The outfield defence also lacks experience. Blokhin has settled on promising domestic players, so the first-choice full-backs and centre-back Ratkitskiy can claim only 26 caps between them; this might explain the team keeping only 2 clean sheets in the last 8 matches.
Goalscoring could also be a problem. Despite a fair season back in Eastern Europe with Dynamo Moscow, former Liverpool striker Voronin has only 7 in 70 for the national team. Shevchenko is still a graceful player, but cannot be relied upon even to complete a full 90 minutes. Somehow, Blokhin will have to get these various parts to gel in the short time before the competition kicks off.
The Key Men
Shevchenko may be the elder statesman of Ukrainian football, but realistically the team’s hopes now rest more heavily on the man they call ‘the new Sheva’, 22 year-old Dynamo Kyiv winger Andriy Yarmolenko. In two full seasons in the Kyiv side he has scored 11 and 12 goals, despite acting as a substitute and playing wide on his favoured left. Ukraine’s midfield should operate to free up Yarmolenko to exploit his pace – something this Ukraine team lacks elsewhere– on the wing; alternatively, Blokhin may play him behind or indeed instead of Shevchenko. Ukraine may struggle too much at the Euros for the ‘new Sheva’ to make much of a name for himself, but reports in Ukraine are already linking him with AC Milan: apparently on the advice of his mentor, the ‘old Sheva’ himself.
Other than Yarmolenko, record cap-holder Anatoliy Tymoshchuk has the experience for both club and country to make an impression. After a heartbreaking end to the season with Bayern Munich, Tymoshchuk may relish the chance to return to Ukraine. His discipline at the base of midfield will be crucial to Ukraine’s attempts to build attacks.
One to Watch
Yarmolenko falls under this category, but a more leftfield bet might be his Kyiv teammate Denys Harmash. The same age as Yarmolenko but with fewer appearances for club or country, if he receives the nod from Blokhin, Harmash is likely to play alongside Anatoliy Tymoshchuk at the base of midfield. Less of a tough tackler than Tymoshchuk, he can use the protection he offers to express a central midfield game based more on interceptions and circulating the ball. Harmash is the only player in the senior squad from the side that won the 2009 Under 19 championship on home soil; coincidentally, he scored against England in the final.
Blokhin has favoured a 4-4-2, with one forward – usually Shevchenko, given his lack of pace – tending to drop deep to form more of a 4-2-3-1. Tymoshchuk helps to anchor the midfield, allowing Yarmolenko to push up wide. A combination of the old and new Shevas, plus Kyiv striker Artem Milevskiy, will be supported by a more restrained winger on the right, most likely Oleksandr Aliyev or Oleh Husyev. The defence relies more on youthful energy than grit, although 29 year-old Oleksandr Kucher provides excellent cover.
Probable line-up (4-4-2)
Pyatov; Selin, Kucher, Rakitskiy, Butko; Tymoshchuk, Harmash, Aliyev/Gusyev, Yarmolenko; Shevchenko, Milevskiy
Ukraine will doubtless struggle to emerge from Group D. Draws against England or France would bolster their chances, and the match against Sweden will be crucial: three points there could be enough to see them through at the expense of England. However, the runner-up of Group D is almost certain to meet defending champions Spain in the quarters. It seems that a brave exit in the last eight, perhaps combined with some good-spirited performances will have to be enough to satisfy the co-hosts.
-Sam Goff (Football Watcher)