"How early did you arrive at Olimpiyskiy Stadium ticket booths this morning?" a reporter from Ukraine's Today newspaper asked two exhausted women who had escaped, ticket-in-hand, from the vast, wind-chilled queues on Tuesday. "This morning? What are you talking about?" they replied, aghast at such a question. "We've been stood here since 12 o'clock last night."
The frenzied rush for tickets was so extraordinary that captain Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, nestled away in the calm of the Ukraine training camp, was asked if he had seen the news reports. "It's normal," he said, exuding the relaxed nature that has come to characterise Mykhailo Fomenko's Ukraine. Whilst the fans are reaching feverish excitement, the squad retains a carefree, but not careless, attitude.
The contrasting tones of those ticket-hungry fans and Tymoshchuk's coolness reflects the two prevailing, yet opposite, emotions heading into the playoff with France: confidence and trepidation. The confidence stems from the sea change Fomenko has affected in Ukrainian football, dragging a previously laboured side to an undefeated six wins and one draw in qualifying. Trepidation, though, comes as Ukraine have never defeated their opponents France, perennially failing against Europe's leading teams, falling at this hurdle to Greece before the last World Cup.
The Wing Wonders
Should those braving a night on the cold Kiev concrete get the chance to take their enthusiasm to Brazil, Ukraine are likely to require quality performances from their two wingers, Evgen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko.
Setting up in Fomenko's usual 4-2-3-1 system, the two wingers form the crucial components of the team's quick transition to attack, each favouring inverted roles, looking to drag dizzying full-backs inside.
Konoplyanka, 24, is the leading light in former Tottenham boss Juande Ramos' Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk side. The attacker has both the pace and the guile to play in any position along the 'three' of the modern, flexible 4-2-3-1 system, with Ramos calling for 50 million to 60 million euros before any thought of selling Konoplyanka could be considered. Equally able to act in a playmaking role, bringing others into play, or as a direct winger, Dnipro's prized asset asserted his talent with a rambunctious strike against England in 2012.
As the latter of the two players Arsene Wenger warned France about, Yarmolenko differs in style from his partner on the Ukraine wings. Whilst both like to drift inside from a wide position, Yarmolenko is perhaps the more 'traditional' of Ukraine's two stars. The Dynamo Kiev talisman is a winger of the classical mould; always looking to embarrass the full-back and either shoot or cross with his ferocious left foot. Both, though, offer the "speed of thought and movement" that Fomenko calls for from his sides, making the pair Ukraine's symbols of rejuvenation.
Fomenko imbues calmness
Fomenko, the 65-year-old manager, has been the catalyst for the rejuvenation from maudlin inadequacy to just a single, cruel point away from England in the group stage of World Cup qualification. The aforementioned spirit of relaxation and calm emanates outward from the manager, whose dealings with journalists always produce a humorous soundbite.
The latest of those soundbites, coming in a news conference carried out at the team's base, perfectly illustrates the way Fomenko's humour disarms journalists, allowing the wizened coach to escape without divulging sensitive information. Asked the stock question as to whether there is a specific tactical plan to deal with France, Fomenko smiled, a glint in the eye, and said: "How can you go to a pharmacy without a prescription?"
This air of comfort and calmness transfers to the players. Many in the Ukrainian media credit the positive team spirit cultivated by the manager as the decisive factor in Ukraine's improving displays. This, though, does Fomenko's footballing work a disservice, with the manager encouraging improvements in all areas of the pitch. Since his tenure began, Ukraine have conceded only two goals in 10 fixtures, also impressing in the other penalty area, scoring 31 goals.
It's clear, therefore, that for all the soundbites and comments on improving morale, the team is reacting where it matters: on the field. The defensive pairing of Evgen Khacheridi and Yaroslav Rakitskiy look increasingly coordinated, whilst the attacking movements of Konoplyanka, Yarmolenko and either one of Roman Zozulya, Marko Devic or Evgen Seleznyov have no trouble converting chances into goals.
A softer centre and disciplinary issues
Whilst the strength of Ukraine is their effectiveness around both boxes, France may wish to exploit what looks like a significantly weaker central midfield. The power of those such as Paul Pogba, and the craft of Yohan Cabaye will face an aging but steady Ukraine midfield.
Captain Tymoshchuk, naturalised Brazilian Edmar and Dnipro legend Ruslan Rotan are each the 'wrong' side of their 30th birthday. All are competent central midfielders yet lack the spark, youthful zest and speed of the French midfield. Shakhtar midfielder Taras Stepanenko, 24, may be called into the side to offer a more mobile challenge, but France will still aim to control the tie from the centre of the pitch.
Another handicap for Ukraine, and one also affecting France, is FIFA's refusal to 'zero out' the yellow cards each side carries over from the group stage. Ukraine have nine players on yellow cards -- including the aforementioned aging midfield trio, strikers Devic and Seleznyov, and star man Konoplyanka. France, who have five players on yellow cards, may wish to try and coax Ukraine's key players into careless challenges, forcing them to miss the second leg.
The extent to which Ukraine's softer centre can stifle France's creativity, in turn allowing Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko enough of the ball, may go some way to determining whether the humorous quips of Fomenko and the feel-good Ukraine camp are allowed to offer another dash of vibrant yellow to Brazil's beaches.