Best moment: Without a doubt, Shevchenko's stunning brace in the opening match against Sweden, in the city where he first made his name as a world class striker. A fitting way to end an incredible career for the best Ukrainian player of the past several decades, if not of all time (although Blokhin would contest that claim).
Worst moment: The ghost goal in the match against Donetsk. Devic's strike could have been a potential momentum-swinger in the last game of the group stages, but it was not to be. The match finished 1-0, and the co-hosts went out early.
Verdict: 6/10. Not making it out of the group stages, especially after the opening defeat of Sweden, is a disappointment. But to be realistic, Ukraine were never favoured to make it to out of the group. The fantastic result over Sweden and valiant performances against both France and Sweden will be fondly remembered by Ukrainians fans, even if the team simply lacked the class to compete with the big boys.
Thanks you to all who have followed by blog here on ESPNFC, unfortunately I was unable to post any more updates after Ukraine was eliminated. But if you're interested in all things related to Ukrainian, and more broadly Eastern European football, be sure to check out my blog, Passive Offside, and follow me on Twitter @PassiveOffside .
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.
This is the first in a three part series chronicling the history of football in Ukraine
If you take a look at the official FIFA records, you will find that the Ukrainian national team, as a separate and recognized entity, has existed for only twenty years. Over these two decades their record has been rather unimpressive: one World Cup appearance in 2006, where they advanced to the quarterfinals, and automatic qualification for Euro 2012 as co-hosts. But this unremarkable performance belies a glorious footballing legacy that Ukraine left behind as part of the Soviet Union. The books say that Russia is the official successor national team of the USSR. This appropriation of history overlooks just how influential Ukrainian players and clubs were in the Soviet era. Ukraine exists as an independent state since just 1992. But football in Ukraine goes much further back.
As it happened in so many corners of the globe, from the River Plate to Rotterdam, football first came to Ukraine, when it was still a part of Imperial Russia, by way of what David Goldblatt called the 'informal empire,' the assortment of British soldiers, merchants, officials, and businessmen that travelled the world and brought the game with them. British sailors were seen playing the game at the docks in the Black Sea port of Odessa as early as the 1860s, and in 1878 the first ever football club, the Odessa British Athletic Club, was formed in Ukraine, although it was composed entirely of Englishmen. Six years later the club built the first ever football pitch in the country. Though at first treated with scepticism by the local population, the appeal of the game proved utterly irresistible and quickly spread across the land. It became especially popular in Western Ukraine, where its growth was aided by the Sokol movement, and it was in Lviv that the first documented match on the territory of Ukraine took place.
The match was an unorthodox affair to say the least. On July 14, 1894, several sporting tournaments were held in Lviv, among them a football match between the Sokol clubs of Lviv and Krakow. Włodzimierz Chomicki put the Lviv side ahead in the 6th minute, but the referee called the match off soon afterward, as there was to be a gymnastics competition held in the same stadium. Chomicki's goal is considered the first in the history of both Polish and Ukrainian football. Quite appropriate that these two nations are now co-hosting the first European championships to ever be held in Eastern Europe.
Football's popularity continued to spread in the early 1900s. Gymanstics-Sports Club, later renamed Pohon, was founded in Lviv in 1904 and would go on to become one of the best sides of the Polish league in the interwar period. It was in Lviv that Ukraine's first city-wide league was organized in 1906. Meanwhile the Sokol movement continued to be influential and helped establish the game in Kyiv. By 1911 city-wide championships were organized in both Kyiv and Odessa. It appeared that the momentum of football's rise was unstoppable. But in 1914, as the European empires and democracies mobilized their armies and prepared for war on an unprecedented, devastating scale, football was put on hold indefinitely.
As a result of the First World War and the collapse of Imperial Europe, the borders were redrawn across the continent. Most of Western Ukraine now fell under the sovereignty of the recreated Polish state, while the Transcarpathian region and parts of Southwestern Ukraine were ceded to Czechoslovakia and Romania, respectively. Though divided between different nations, Ukrainian teams continued to prosper. Lviv, now a part of Poland, remained a footballing powerhouse. Pohon won the Polish league on four occasions, while Sparta Lviv were runners up to Wisła Krakow in the only Polish Cup ever held before the outbreak of the Second World War. Rus' of Uzhorod won the Slovak championship in 1933, though this was not an official national title.
The rest of Ukraine was, by 1922, incorporated into the Soviet Union as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Kharkiv, then the capital of the republic, emerged as the dominant force in Ukrainian football. Teams from Kharkiv won eight of the eleven national tournaments held in Ukrainian SSR from 1921-1936. The Kharkiv side also defeated the selection from Leningrad in the first Soviet-wide cup competition in 1924, the predecessor to the Soviet League. Several Kharkiv players featured on the USSR national team. During this era, teams were not yet organized as clubs in the modern sense. Instead, the teams were the best players taken from each city, playing in a Ukraine-wide knockout cup format. But this would soon change. The legendary club side Dynamo Kyiv, formed in 1927, won the last of the Ukrainian SSR tournaments in 1936, the first time a 'club' triumphed in these cup competitions. 1936 was also the first time the USSR championship was held and organized in a league format. Dynamo finished as runners up in the inaugural competition.
Curiously, six decades before Ukraine played their first ever official match, an unofficial national Ukrainian national team took the field in an unrecognized friendly against Turkey. In 1933, the Turkish national team were on their way home after having defeated the Soviet Union 2-1. But while en route to Odessa, from where they were to complete their final leg of their journey across the Black Sea, they were challenged to a rematch by a side made up exclusively of Ukrainian players. The match took place in Kharkiv, where the billboards advertised the event as “National team of Ukraine vs. National team of Turkey.” The Ukrainian squad was made up of seven players from Kharkiv, but it was Kyiv-based striker Konstantin Shegodksiy whose hat trick made the difference as Ukraine emerged victorious, 3-2.
Kyiv was fast becoming a rising centre for sport, as demonstrated by the ambitious plans to build a 50,000 capacity National Sports Complex in the city. On June 21, 1941, the newspaper Proletarian Pravda reported:
“Tomorrow in Kiev there will be opened the biggest fitness structure in Ukraine, the Republican Stadium named after Nikita Khrushchev... The new stadium can serve 70,000 spectators simultaneously. Surrounded by 36 sectors of 50,000 seats, the lush green carpet of the oval football field of international sizes is visible... From the side towards the street of Henri Barbusse there rises a slender colonnade. That is the temporary entrance to the stadium... According to the decision of the government of the UkrSSR the Republican Stadium together with the existing Fitness Palace and a winter pool will be combined into a united sport complex, the centre of educational-sport training...”
The opening match was to take place between Dynamo Kyiv and CSKA Moscow on June 22. But as fate would have it, on that very day the Germans invaded the Soviet Union and Kyiv was bombed by the Luftwaffe. The Great Patriotic War had begun. A banner was hung on the stadium with the rather optimistic inscription “Postponed until victory.”
Despite the war, many of the Dynamo players continued to play football during the occupation of Kyiv. FC Start, composed of eight players from Dynamo and three from Lokomotiv Kyiv, was formed in the spring of 1942, and won their inaugural match 7-2 over fellow Ukrainian side Rukh on June 7 of that year. Over the summer Start played several matches against teams made up of the occupying garrisons of the Romanians, Hungarians, and Germans, and won them all. On August 6 they defeated Flakelf, an elite team composed of players from the German air force. Flakelf challenged Start to a rematch, which took place three days later. The details of this encounter are murky and inconsistent. According to some reports, the Germans played dirty and constantly fouled the Start players, but the referee, an SS officer, ignored the appeals of the Ukrainians. Regardless, FC Start still ran out 5-3 winners.
In the aftermath of the match, many of the FC Start members were arrested, tortured, and executed by the Gestapo. This is where it becomes difficult to distinguish between myth and truth. The Soviet propaganda machine characterized the Start players as heroes who defiantly ignored German threats, winning the match despite knowing that it would cost them their lives. Dubbed the 'Death Match,' it became a popular and romanticized story in the Soviet Union and spawned two films. But the accuracy of this version of events is dubious. The prosecution office of the city Hamburg declared in 2005 that there was no evidence that the players were shot for winning the match. Regardless of what really transpired, the match entered the Ukrainian national consciousness as symbolic of both brave resistance and footballing prowess. In the decades after the Second World War, Ukraine would assert itself as a football powerhouse on the European stage.
With less than a week to go until Ukraine's opening match against Sweden and the warm up friendlies all wrapped up, there are still plenty of questions that remain about Oleg Blokhin's starting eleven. The tactical set up is more or less clear. Ukraine usually play with a 4-4-1-1, as they did in the 4-0 victory over Estonia:
But the squad selection is still very much up in the air. In the 3-2 defeat to Austria, the the only changes made to the side were in goal, where backups Oleksandr Horyianov and Maksym Koval were each given a half of playing time, and at left back, where the more defensive-minded Yaroslav Rakitskiy replaced Yevhen Selin. Tuesday's 2-0 setback against Turkey saw a completely different side, as 8 of the 11 players that started against Austria were left on the bench. However, after the match it emerged that nearly half the squad was suffering from food poisoning and were deemed unfit to play. Because of these extenuating circumstances, it is impossible to draw conclusions about future squad selections from this match. Nevertheless, the preceding two friendlies provide a glimpse into Blokhin's tactical selections that we can expect to see in less that a week's time in Kyiv.
Over the six months Ukraine has lost three of its top keepers. Oleksandr Rybka tested positive for a banned substance and was banned until 2014. Andriy Dikan suffered multiple facial bone fractures, craniocerebral trauma, and a brain concussion following a collision with Zenit's Aleksandr Kerzhakov in March. To make things worse, the vastly experienced Oleksandr Shovkovskiy, the undisputed number one of the national team since the mid 90s, was ruled out following a shoulder injury.
Andriy Pyatov, who regained his starting place at Shakhtar after Rybka's suspension, is now the first choice. Maksym Koval of Dynamo Kyiv, named in November of 2010 as one of the 100 best young players in the world by the Spanish football magazine Don Balón, is considered one of Ukraine's most promising rising stars, but at 19 years of age he lacks international experience. His first cap came just last week, when he came on as a second half substitute against Austria. Oleksandr Horyianov, a veteran journeyman currently in his third spell at Metalist Kharkiv, rounds up the goalkeeper selection.
It is far from an ideal situation. Losing three top goalkeepers in the lead up to the tournament is a stroke of incredibly bad luck. But Pyatov is by no means a liability. Though sometimes prone to lapses in concentration, he is solid under pressure, good with his feet, and capable of initiating the counterattack with his distribution. He will no doubt start in the opening match.
In the friendlies against Estonia and Austria the Dynamo Kyiv duo of Yevhen Khacheridi and Taras Mikhalik started in the center of defense. Khackeridi is a tall, powerful defender, but injury prone and known to lose his temper. Mikhalik, whose club campaign was plagued by injuries (becoming a bit of a pattern, isn't it?), is physically strong and uncompromising, but far from graceful. Blokhin can also opt to go with the Shakhtar Donetsk partnership of Oleksandr Kucher and Yaroslav Rakitskiy. Ex-Barcelona man Dmytro Chygrinskiy will miss the tournament after a series of serious injuries.
At right back, Oleh Husiev, a converted right winger, is the preferred choice. Husiev is joint third on Ukraine's all time goalscoring list and has over 70 caps to his name. He is excellent attacking down the wing, but defensively has a tendency to drift out of position. Husiev can be utilized on either flank but usually starts on the right for the national team. His back up will be 21 year old Shakhtar-owned fullback Bohdan Butko. Butko is very quick and has a good delivery into the box, but much like Husiev can be a defensive liability.
On the opposite flank Yevhen Selin has established himself as the starter. Though he can also make overlapping runs in support of the wingers, he tends to be more conservative in his style of play than his counterparts on the right. Vyacheslav Shevchuk will be his backup, while Rakitskiy can also fill in on the left if need be.
Without a doubt Anatoliy Tymoshchuk is the first name on the team sheet and the captain in the absence of Andriy Shevchenko. The Bayern Munich defensive midfielder is the only member of the squad to play outside of Eastern Europe. His tackling ability and high work rate are well regarded both in Germany and domestically.
There are a wealth options to partner Tymo. Thus far Blokhin has preferred Serhiy Nazarenko, an attacking midfielder who scored a fantastic long range strike in the 3-3 draw against Germany last year and is, along with Husiev, joint 3rd on the all time goal scoring charts. Oleksandr Aliyev presents another attacking option in the center of the pitch and can also play as a number 10 behind the lone striker. Ruslan Rotan and Denys Harmash are more defensive alternatives, while both Mykhalyk and Rakitskiy can also play in the center of midfield if needed.
Without a doubt the strong point of the squad. Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka, both just 22 years of age, are two of Ukraine's brightest young talents. Yarmolenko, who is more of an inverted than a classic winger, often looks to cut inside and forms a formidable partnership with Husiev on the right flank. Yarmolenko and Konoplyanka are quick on the ball, with a powerful shot and the ability to beat defenders one on one. Both scored in the aforementioned 3-3 draw against Germany last year. The only other feasible option here is Husiev, who will only play if Yarmolenko is not fit or is forced to move positions for tactical reasons.
The talismanic Andriy Shevchenko needs no introduction, but fitness worries will likely see him limited to an impact role off the bench. Andriy Voronin is also an experienced forward who has played in England and Germany. Voronin may not have an impressive goalscoring rate for the national team (7 goals in 69 caps), but he prefers to drop deep to pick up the ball and get involved in the build up play. The other three options are all question marks. Artem Milevskyi, who can play both as a target man and a second striker, is talented but frustratingly inconsistent. Serbian import Marko Devic is a versatile player who can operate on the wing as well as in the middle and is a constant nuisance for the defense with his incessant movement. Yevhen Seleznyov is a classic number nine who has never been able to replicate his club form with the national team.
Who will start in the center of defense?
At the moment Blokhin appears to favor the Dynamo Kiev partnership of Khacheridi and Mykhalyk, though Kucher and Rakitskiy started against Turkey. It is likely that whichever pairing he chooses, he will like to keep the dynamics of a club partnership in place.
What will be the role of the fullbacks?
In the friendly against Estonia both Husiev and Selin made themselves available to the wingers through overlapping runs. But in matches against stronger opposition, when Ukraine simply will not have the squad resources to dominate, they will not have the ability to get forward nearly as much.
Who will partner Tymoshchuk in the center of midfield?
Nazarenko played well against Estonia but his effectiveness was limited against Austria, when Ukraine were not able to assert themselves in the middle of the pitch with nearly as much ease. Considering the quality of opposition at the tournament, Blokhin will likely prefer a more defensive midfielder. As Aliyev is arguably the most attacking midfielder Ukraine have, he is unlikely to start. Don't be surprised to see Rotan given the nod. Interestingly, the choice of Tymoshchuk's partner will affect the movement of the fullbacks. Tymo often covers for Husiev when the latter makes runs to support Yarmolenko. If a player like Rotan or Harmash can do the same on the opposite flank, this will give Selin more freedom to roam forward, a luxury not afforded to him when Nazarenko starts.
Who will start up front?
Voronin is likely to play in support of a direct striker, but who that will be remains a mystery. Devic has played reasonably well when given the opportunity and will likely start, but Blokhin may want to go with a more direct, physical player such as Milevskiy. Aliyev is also an option as a number 10 behind a striker, but this is highly unlikely.
How will Ukraine play?
As Michael Cox pointed out, for underdogs the best strategy is to play defensively, be organized, and play on the break. Despite enjoying home field advantage, Ukraine is definitely an underdog in this group and should heed Cox's advice. The wingers have more than enough pace to trouble defenses on the counter, and this will likely be Ukraine's main strategy. The movement of the two forwards will also be key; if they can drag defenders out of position, this will leave plenty of space for the likes of Yarmolenko and Konoplyanka. Dropping Nazarenko for a player like Rotan may be a necessary sacrifice of creativity in favor of stability; despite his playmaking abilities, Nazarenko leaves too much space for Tymoshchuk to cover on his own. The central midfielders must act as a shield in front of the back four, and though the wingers are primarily attacking players they will be expected to do their fair share defensively. The supporting striker will also need to drop back and aid the two central midfielders in defensive duties; otherwise, Ukraine risks getting overrun in midfield against that sides that field a 4-3-3 or any of its variations.
(Edit: I suppose this section turned into more of a how should Ukraine play rather than a how will Ukraine play, but I apologize for nothing)
What can we expect?
Getting out of the group will be a success, and with the support of the home fans and a fair bit of luck, it is definitely a possibility. Sweden have a world class striker in Ibrahimovic but are more vulnerable defensively than they used to be. France, admittedly, look stronger and stronger with every match, but they too have their defensive frailties. England will have Rooney back for the third match which just happens to be against Ukraine in what is clearly a UEFA designed conspiracy to knock the co-hosts out early (disclaimer: sarcasm). But England are England, whatever that means, and have been weakened by injuries to several key players. It's difficult to make predictions, but a 2nd place finish is not out of the question, if all goes right. But if Ukraine fail to keep their defensive shape and leave too much room for the opposition to work with, it could be an ugly few weeks for the Yellow-Blues.
Hello and welcome to the ESPN FC page for the Ukraine at UEFA Euro 2012! Over the next few weeks and during the tournament I will be blogging about not only the performances of the Ukrainian national team in the build up to the competition and at the Euros themselves, but I will also be discuss the history of the beautiful game in Ukraine and the magnificent legacy that the country left behind as an integral part of football in the Soviet Union. In addition, I will be providing what I hope will be an in-depth tactical preview of the Ukrainian national team and how they shape up against their Group D opponents. But before I can get to any of that, I feel it is appropriate to begin with a recap of Monday's friendly against Estonia in Austria, the first of three warm up matches for the Yellow-Blues in the lead up to the competition.
Ukraine lined up with a 4-4-1-1, the formation that they are widely expected to use at the Euros this summer. Andriy Pyatov, the undisputed number one now that all of Ukraine's other goalies have been either injured or suspended, started at goalkeeper. The back four consisted of Yevhen Khacheridi and Taras Mykhalyk as centre-backs, with Oleh Husiev and Yevhen Selin as right and left back, respectively. Anatoliy Tymoschuk and Serhiy Nazarenko started in the centre of midfield. Tymoshchuk performed the role of the holding midfielder while Nazarenko was allowed freedom to roam further up the pitch. Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka started on the flanks, while up top, Andriy Voronin supported Marko Devic.
All in all it was a fairly straightforward tactical set up and one that will most likely heavily resemble the Ukrainian line up in Kiev on the 11th of June in the opening match against Sweden. The fullbacks consistently got up the pitch and made overlapping runs to support the wingers. Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko cut inside and linked up well with Nazarenko and Voronin. Devic, the striker, drifted into the midfield and out into the wings to create space for the other attacking players. Obviously Estonia is not the calibre of competition that Ukraine will face this summer. But nevertheless, this friendly provided a glimpse of the type of tactics we can expect to see Blokhin employ.
Ukraine got off to a very quick start and dominated proceedings from beginning to end. The first chance came inside the first minute. Konoplyanka received the ball out wide, but he saw his powerful left-footed drive parried over the bar by Estonian keeper Mikhel Aksalu. The early dominance would soon pay off. Voronin, who had dropped back into the midfield, found Nazarenko in the box. Nazarenko cleverly cut back for Yarmolenko, who beat Aksalu at the near post. 1-0 in the 9th minute. The rest of the first half saw more of the same. The Estonians were hardly able to get out of their own half, let alone threaten Pyatov's goal.
Ukraine's next chance came in the 29th minute. Voronin pounced on the rebound of Konoplyanka's long range effort but managed to send the ball well over the target from three meters out with the goal gaping. Five minutes later Yarmolenko was brought down in the box, and Husiev confidently sent Aksalu the wrong way to give the Ukrainians a 2-0 lead. Shortly afterward Yarmolenko burst into the box and found Devic making a run to the near post. Aksalu managed to get a hand on Devic's shot, but Voronin made up for his earlier howler by heading into an empty net off the rebound. 3-0 at half time, and it was nothing less than Blokhin's men deserved.
Half Time Substitutions
Blokhin made four changes at half time, though the shape of the side remained essentially the same. Rakitskiy replaced Mikhalik at centre back. Aliyev came on for Voronin, Shevchenko for Yarmolenko, and Milevskiy for Devic. As a result, Nazarenko went out wide to the right, Aliyev took his place in the centre of midfield alongside Tymoschuk, and Milevskiy and Shevchenko formed the partnership in attack.
The second half started out with more of the same: Ukraine dominating, with Estonia struggling to keep possession and create chances. Shevchenko, the all-time leading goalscorer and symbol of the national team, made an immediate impact. Five minutes after the break, he gathered the ball in the box, beat two defenders, and crossed it for Milevskiy, who got a touch to send it past the keeper and make the score 4-0. Pyatov was called into action for the first time in the 53rd minute and did well to tip Tarmo Kink's powerful attempt over the bar.
Blokhin made another switch in the 54th, taking off Nazarenko for the striker Yevhen Seleznyov. This altered the tactical set up of the squad. Ukraine now had three attackers and no right sided midfielder. Shevchenko often drifted out wide, but there was plenty of space on the right side of the pitch to exploit. This allowed Husiev, who started his career as a right-sided midfielder before being converted into a fullback, to attack more and effectively become a winger. But this left too many gaps in defence, and several times Khacheridi had to drift over and cover for Gusev, who was out of position. Blokhin responded by taking out Husiev for Bohdan Butko. Butko did well after coming out and twice found Seleznyov with perfect crosses, but the striker was unable to convert his opportunities. Ukraine continued to press Estonia and created several more chances, but were unable to extend their lead. 4-0 at full time.
A positive result and an impressive performance. Estonia may not be the toughest opponent, but Ukraine showed plenty of quality in all areas of the pitch. Particularly encouraging were the performances of the two young wingers, Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko, who threatened with every touch. Shevchenko demonstrated that even though he may have lost some of his pace, he can still be an impact player off the bench and still has the technique and vision of a world class striker. The fullbacks contributed to the attacks and made plenty of overlapping runs in support of the wingers. The centre-back pairing of Khacheridi and Mikhalik were not tested nearly enough to make any kind of judgment on their performance, although they responded well to the limited threat that the Estonians occasionally posed. Tymoschuk was a rock in the midfield as always, and Nazarenko impressed with his runs into the box. The only negative from the match was the poor finishing of Yevhen Seleznyov, who has not been able to replicate his club form for the national side. Despite this one dark spot, one could not have hoped for a better result in Austria.
Man of the Match
Plenty of candidates, but Andriy Yarmolenko was involved in all three first half goals before being substituted at half time. Quick, powerful, and with an excellent touch, the Dynamo Kiev winger is one of Ukraine's brightest young prospects at just 22 years of age, and his talents were on full display here.
Yevhen Seleznyov: “Ukraine played well against Estonia, but only the European championships will reveal everything. There will be a completely different atmosphere, different teams. We cannot yet guess ahead.”
Andriy Pyatov: “Of course, it's always nice to win, especially with a big result. But before the match the coach emphasized not the result, but the performance of the team. In these types of matches that is far more important. We had to play in our style, to implement our game. Even at 4-0 the team did not stop. The result only confirms that in the match against Estonia, many things worked well. The team kept a clean sheet, won with a large scoreline, and completely dominated on the pitch, over the course of the whole match. Of course, this instils confidence. The quality of the performance and the result always affect the morale of the squad.”
Serhiy Nazarenko: “The first match was a success, but we still have two friendlies to implement a game plan. There is a collective spirit in the squad, everyone plays for each other, and this is probably the most important thing.”
Anatoliy Tymoshchuk: “The Estonian national team is a quality opponent, but we still have two matches ahead of us and we have to work with the same dedication and desire toward victory. I think that if we play the same way, the results will continue to come. There is not a lot of time until Euro 2012, so we need to demonstrate a quick style of play. We are playing with a lot of pressure, but this does not matter, we need to give it our all on the pitch.”
Oleg Blokhin: “One one hand, I enjoyed that match. Well done to the lads, the played until the end and did not concede. Of course, we could have scored maybe four more. I liked the movement. I did not like some moments of play from a strictly tactical point of view, on which we still have to work. To go out onto the pitch at halftime being up 3-0 is a bit difficult, the team tends to relax, but considering fatigue from training, I believed that the football we played wasn't bad.”