Call it bad luck, a conspiracy, or a lack of class. Call it what you will, but Ukraine are out of Euro 2012. Wayne Rooney, the man who was originally suspended for this match but had his suspension reduced on appeal, scored the goal that took England through and eliminated the Ukrainians. If that doesn't leave a bitter taste, then Marko Devic's ghost goal surely will. Devic appeared to score the equalizer in the 62nd minute, but neither the referee nor his assistant awarded the goal.
The ghost goal has been the main talking point from the match and will surely reinvigorate the goal-line technology debate. But to be fair, over the course of the match England were the better side and Ukraine did little to show that they merit a spot in the last 8. In fact, they did not play particularly well in any of their three matches; the famous 2-1 victory over Sweden was a direct result of Shevchenko's individual brilliance, not an impressive team performance.
That's not to say that Ukraine failed at their first ever European championship. Realistically, their chances of progressing out of the group were slim from the beginning. Ukraine are simply not in the same class as the likes of England and France, and they have only once ever qualified for a major international tournament. Three points, third place in the group, and an incredible victory over Sweden are a fine result.
Perhaps most importantly, this tournament created memories that will forever remain in the hearts of Ukraine supporters. Shevchenko's brace in the opening match will go down in history as one of the legendary moments in the history of Ukrainian football. And although it is hardly a pleasant one, the injustice of the ghost goal also represents an important event. The creation of a national football narrative requires both the sublime and the tragic. Brazil have the Maracana disaster of 1950. England have the Wembley defeat to Hungary in 1953. Italy have Roberto Baggio's penalty miss in 1994. Ukraine now have the Donetsk ghost goal of 2012.
Though the ghost goal is obviously not on the same scale of tragedy (if such a concept can even be measured), one must remember that Ukraine, as an independent entity, is still both a young country and a young national team. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian football suffered a complete organizational breakdown. But in the twenty years since, Ukraine has reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup, the best performance of any ex-Soviet state, and became the first Eastern European nation to host a major international tournament. Though the Euro 2012 adventure may be over for the Ukrainian national team, there is plenty to look forward to. Ukraine's football narrative is just beginning.
Though Ukraine are out of the tournament, I will continue posting on this blog about the immediate future of the national team, as well as the continuation of the series on the history of Ukrainian football, all the way through the final on the first of July.
On the eve of the final matchday of the group stages, Ukraine are in an uncomfortable but straightforward position. A victory over England, and they will move on to the quarter-finals. Anything less, and they will be going (or rather staying) home. The 2-0 defeat to France on Friday night, combined with England's 3-2 victory over Sweden, have made sure that Ukraine will not be able to simply grind out a result to secure passage into the knockout stages. But as the tournament has gone on, it has become clear that Ukraine prefers an attacking approach and are not content to simply sit deep and play on the counter. A must win situation in the final match of the group stages, in front of their home fans, may suit their style of play. It will not be an easy task against an England side that, playing with no expectations for once, has thus far impressed and will be bolstered by the return of Wayne Rooney.
Friday's match against France was delayed for over an hour by a torrential downpour and severe thunderstorms in Donetsk. But the weather cleared, and the drainage system of the Donetsk stadium proved up to the task. As for the match itself, France were the better side but Ukraine had their chances and easily could have come away with a point. Oleh Blokhin selected the exact same starting eleven that defeated Sweden in the opener.
Tactically, this was a battle between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3. To avoid a 3-2 disadvantage in the midfield, Andiry Voronin dropped back and covered Alou Diarra, while Tymoshchuk covered Nasri and Nazarenko picked up Cabaye. France looked the more threatening side in the first half and exposed Ukraine's high line several times, forcing Pyatov into several good saves. France's fullbacks managed to neutralize Ukraine's wingers, taking away Ukraine's counterattacking threat.
Blokhin's decision to replace Voronin with Devic at half time revealed Ukraine's intentions. Devic is more of a direct striker and did not track back nearly as much as Voronin, leaving Ukraine outmanned in midfield. Ukraine started the second half well, but as the game became more open France began to assert their technical advantage and took the lead through Menez in the 53rd. Cabaye doubled their advantage in the 56th minute, and France did not look likely to concede after that.
So now we come to the deciding match. This time, there will be no question about Ukraine's style of play: they need to attack, because they need to win. Since a draw is enough for England, they will likely revert to their approach in the opening match against France, in which they sat deep, defended with two banks of four, and forced the French into hopeful long range efforts. Since Ukraine lack the technical quality of France, getting past the resilient English defence will prove even more difficult than it was for Les Blues. To make things worse, Wayne Rooney returns for England. Needing three points to advance, Ukraine will leave plenty of space at the back for the likes of Ashley Young, Theo Walcott, and Rooney to exploit, and considering that Ukraine's centre back pairing lack pace England's attack could have a field day.
But all hope is not lost. After all, this is England we're talking about. I admit I'd be more confident if these were the quarter-finals, in which case I would put money on Ukraine going through on penalties, but nevertheless I remain hopeful that the English will find a way to screw this up. The counter-attacking approach won't work this time because England will in all probability sit deep and wait for Ukraine to attack, but the wide players will still be key and will hope to stretch England's defence to make space for Ukraine's strikers and midfielders to exploit. But after a certain point tactics become a moot point and it simply comes down to what happens in the 90 minutes. Who knows? A lucky deflection, a defensive error, or even some help from the referee, and Ukraine could progress into the second round in their first ever European Championship. As the opening lines of the national anthem go, "Shche ne vmerla Ukraina." Ukraine has not yet perished.
Now that the initial euphoria from the incredible comeback victory over Sweden on Monday has died down, Ukraine need to come back to earth and get back to the task at hand. The Sweden match was a fantastic beginning, and Ukraine now find themselves top of the table, but the job is far from complete. Sweden were arguably Ukraine's weakest opponent, and Laurent Blanc's France side will be a much tougher test for Oleh Blokhin's men.
France were the better side in their opener but only managed a draw against the resilient England side. England kept their shape well and defended with two banks of four, frustrating the French and forcing them to resort to speculative long-range strikes. It wasn't pretty, but it was effective. But it is simply not Ukraine's style to play in this manner. Their shape is more fluid, more dynamic. In Oleh Husiev, they have a full back who plays more like an attacking winger, and the midfield only has one defensive player to shield the back four: Anatoliy Tymoshchuk.
Ukraine's attacking approach worked well against Sweden, but France are stronger in midfield. In Yann M'Vila, who is expected to return after injury, they have a capable midfielder who can both stifle the opposition's attacking moves and quickly begin a transition from defence to attack. The front three of Samir Nasri, Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema can be deadly if given space to operate.
This will be the key question of the match: how much space will Ukraine allow France to have? Assuming Blokhin goes with the same starting XI (which is likely if Shevchenko is fit), Ukraine may have problems against the dynamic French attack. France have problems in defence as well, and their central defensive partnership of Philippe Mexes and Adil Rami is not the quickest and can be exploited on the break.
The more pragmatic approach in this match would be to defend in numbers and rely on the counter-attack or the odd set piece for your opportunities, but this Ukraine side can hardly be described as pragmatic. Their youthful attacking flair and idealism is simply incompatible with the 'park the bus' mentality. This may leave Ukraine exposed at the back, but they have enough talent to pose problems for the French. Hardly anyone could have predicted the victory over Sweden, especially after they went 1-0 down. This result is just as difficult to predict. Expect an open, exciting match.
For the past five years he has thought of nothing but the European Championship in his country. It was his dream to play in the tournament and to help his homeland in any way that he could. After a disastrous spell at Chelsea and an injury-riddled past few seasons at Dynamo Kiev, many had written him off as a has-been. But in the city where he first made his mark as a world-class striker, Andriy Shevchenko led Ukraine to a stunning 2-1 comeback victory over favoured Sweden in what will go down as one of Ukrainian football's finest moments. It could not have been any sweeter.
The match was a pulsating encounter, with plenty of chances for both sides and an electric atmosphere at Kiev's Olympic Stadium. It must be said that, despite all of the question marks surrounding them, over the 90 minutes Ukraine were the better side. As Oleh Blokhin himself remarked, this outfit is thoroughly different from the side that reached the last eight of the 2006 World Cup. While that edition of the Yellow-Blues ground out results (see the dour 0-0 draw with Switzerland), this time around Ukraine came here to play proactive football. With plenty of young attacking talent and the talismanic Shevchenko leading the line, Ukraine demonstrated their potential and sent a message that they are not to be written off.
There were no surprises in Blokhin's starting XI except for perhaps Sheva himself. The legendary striker did not start any of the three warm-up friendlies and was not expected to last 90 minutes. But the chance to let Shevchenko start in front of the home fans was too perfect to pass by. He was supported by Voronin, who had an excellent match and was a constant menace for the Swedish defence. The two young wingers, Yarmolenko and Konoplyanka, were also impressive and crucial to Ukraine's counter-attacks. Nazarenko partnered Tymoshchuk in the centre of midfield and often took on the role of the playmaker. Oleh Husiev, despite playing as a full back, attacked so much down that the right that he effectively became a wing back and allowed Yarmolenko to cut inside.
Ukraine's quick counter-attacks made the Swedes uncomfortable, and they had their first great chance on 23 minutes. Nazarenko drove through the middle of the pitch and found Sheva on the right, and after a one-two with Yarmolenko Shevchenko found himself in on goal. He pulled his shot well wide, however, and the chance went begging. Later in the first half, the Ukrainians threatened on the counter-attack again, but this time Yarmolenko's shot was deflected for a corner. Sweden had their opportunities as well, the best being Ibrahimovic's header of the post in the 39th. But neither side was able to make a breakthrough, and it was scoreless at half-time.
It all seemed to be falling apart for Ukraine shortly after the interval. Yarmolenko failed to clear a cross, allowing Ibrahimovic to fire home from close range. Cue the Sheva show. Just minutes later, Yarmolenko made up for his mistake with a fantastic cross into the box, and Shevchenko got in front of Mellberg and beat Isaksson on his near side with a powerful header to equalise. Sweden had hardly had time to settle when, barely five minutes later, Shevchenko again headed past the Swedish goalkeeper, this time with an equally powerful header to the near post from a Nazarenko header.
Sweden had some excellent chances to equalise, but this was always going to be Sheva's night. The stadium, the nation, and the entire Ukrainian diaspora living all around the world gave him a standing ovation as he was substituted late on. This was the perfect beginning to the tournament: three points and a performance for the ages from Ukraine's all-time top scorer to add to what has already been a brilliant career. With the unexpected role of being top of the group, Blokhin will now have to decide whether to go with more of the same or slightly adjust his side for the match against France. But these are questions I will address in the future. This moment in footballing history belongs to Andriy Shevchenko.
When Ukraine and Poland first submitted their joint bid to co-host Euro 2012, they were hardly favourites to land the prestigious tournament. In the first round of voting in 2005, they finished third behind Italy and the joint Croatia-Hungary bid, receiving just one vote more than the cut-off for elimination. But two years later, in a massive upset, Poland-Ukraine received an absolute majority of eight votes at a meeting of the UEFA Executive Committee in Cardiff and were awarded the hosting rights.
Since then, it has hardly been smooth sailing for Ukraine, on both an organisational and a footballing level. Stadium construction has often been behind schedule, and UEFA president Michel Platini has recently accused Ukrainian hoteliers of being “bandits and crooks” for exorbitant price hikes in the lead up to the competition. Some Western European politicians have boycotted the tournament over the Ukrainian government's treatment of jailed former Prime Minister Yuliya Timoshenko. In addition, the recent BBC Panorama documentary with the not terribly understated title 'Stadiums of Hate' has portrayed Ukraine and Poland as uncivilized sanctuaries for violent racists and neo-Nazis, leading Sol Campbell to discourage fans from traveling to the tournament. Hardly the best publicity for the most high-profile international event to be held in the nation since independence.
The footballing preparations have gone only slightly better. The manager has been a revolving door position. Olexiy Myhaylychenko replaced Oleh Blokhin in 2007 but his contract was not renewed following Ukraine's failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. Myron Markevych, the highly regarded coach of Metalist Kharkiv, was appointed his successor and led Ukraine to three victories and a draw against Netherlands in his four matches in charge. However, Markevych was forced out following a bribery scandal at his club and Ukraine turned to Yuri Kalitvinstev, who led the Ukraine Under-19 side to glory at the 2009 UEFA Under-19 Championship. Kalitvinstev, though, recorded only one win in seven months in charge, and Oleh Blokhin returned for his second spell with the national team.
Blokhin's tactical experimentation did not prove to be particularly successful as Ukraine lost four of their first five friendlies. Results soon changed for the better, however, as they won five of their next six and put in an impressive performance in a 3-3 draw with Germany. But there are still plenty of questions about the squad. A particularly fiery encounter between Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev in April has widened the rift that exists between the players of the two squads that form the core of the national team, a potential obstacle to the unity and team spirit so necessary for success at a major competition. Injuries have also taken their toll: incredibly, all three of Ukraine's top-choice goalkeepers, as well as their best central defender, have been ruled out of the tournament. Finally, in the final build up to the tournament, half the squad were struck down by food poisoning in what Blokhin is convinced was no accident.
Yet five years after that fateful meeting in Wales, here we are, hours away from Ukraine's debut at the European Championship. They are not fancied to make it out of the group and are at 40-1 to win the tournament but, with home support and a fair bit of luck, anything is possible. Today's match with Sweden will go a long way in determining Ukraine's chances of reaching the next stage. Win, and they are in prime position. A draw, not a disaster but hardly ideal. Lose, and the odds are heavily against them. I have already written a detailed tactical analysis of the Ukraine squad at Euro 2012, so in this preview I will instead focus on a few key questions in today's opener.
Who will partner Tymoshchuk?
I asked this same question in the preview, but it remains unclear. Nazarenko has been preferred in recent friendlies but his attacking tendencies could see Ukraine overwhelmed in the midfield, especially if Sweden line up with a 4-2-3-1, as expected.
How will Ukraine cope with the threat of Ibrahimovic?
Sweden manager Erik Hamren looks to have finally solved the perennial dilemma of where to play the enigmatic but brilliant striker. Instead of playing in the classic No. 9 position, Ibra will be given a free role to operate behind the lone striker. This will often see him drop back into the midfield to pick up the ball and create from deep. Tymoshchuk will undoubtedly be key in keeping him in check, as he is Ukraine's best defensive midfielder. Once again a lot comes down to who partners the Bayern man, but the central defence partnership will be key as well. Considering that Ukraine will likely have a spare man at the back, that spare defender will often be called upon to respond to the threat posed by Ibra as he makes his runs into the box.
What will be Ukraine's overall strategy?
Blokhin has recently said in an interview that this Ukraine side is more attacking in style than the team that reached the quarter-finals of 2006. Sweden are uncharacteristically vulnerable at the back this year, so if the wingers can get the ball in counter-attacking situations and exploit the gaps at in the defence, Ukraine have a fighting chance. But with a 3-2 disadvantage in the centre of midfield, Ukraine will have to defend in numbers to keep the Swedes, who have plenty of attacking options other than Ibra, at bay.
It has been difficult to discern Blokhin's overall vision from the side in friendlies. Ukraine's strategy has been largely dependent on the quality of the opponents, but this is the European Championship: there are no weak opponents, and Ukraine, despite many talented players, are probably the weakest side in the group. They will have to play smart to win.