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.