Ukraine – Flying under the radar on Europe’s biggest stage
Not many nations made it through a long and drawn-out European Championship qualifying campaign unscathed, with only big-hitters Italy and Belgium easing through their respective groups with ten wins from their ten games. Tournament regulars Spain and Denmark also qualified for Euro 2020 without any major hiccups, but it was Ukraine who perhaps sneaked through almost unnoticed, storming to the top of a difficult group including reigning champions Portugal and constant overachievers Serbia.
They clinched first place in Group B with six victories and two draws from their eight matches, quietly going about their business with crucial displays both home and away to ensure their place at a third successive Euros. Those stalemates arrived in the form of crucial draws in Lisbon and most recently Belgrade in their two toughest games of the group.
And the wins included a 5-0 hammering of Serbia, along with a famous ten-man victory against the current holders, a result that sealed top spot in qualifying and incidentally a party atmosphere long into the night in Kiev. Those wins came on top of relatively straightforward defeats of Lithuania and Luxembourg, although the latter didn’t make it easy for the Ukrainians at times. More impressively, however, is the way they have achieved such a rapid rise in status.
Cast your mind back to Euro 2016 in France, and Mykhaylo Fomenko’s Ukraine went tumbling out of the tournament after three group stage losses at the hands of Germany, Poland, and Northern Ireland, with the last defeat leaving those in charge of Ukranian football with no option but to look elsewhere for someone to lead them into the future.
And who better to lead the next generation of rising stars than former captain and all-time leading goalscorer Andriy Shevchenko. The ex-Milan striker took over the reigns and immediately instilled his drive and determination into a squad lacking passion, ideas, and leadership. A brave choice, but one that has worked wonders so far, with Shevchenko’s win ratio not far off Fomenko’s, with their 22nd spot in the FIFA world rankings an added bonus.
It was undoubtedly a huge risk to take on the San Siro legend, but his previous role as the national team’s assistant coach provided him with a wealth of experience, while his knowledge of Ukranian football is arguably next to none. Fellow legends of a stunning generation of talent are also currently developing their coaching abilities in the game, but Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard plying their trade at club level is a different matter entirely to the task Shevchenko had on his hands.
Wisely, Milan’s former hitman brought some friends with him to help out. Having spent several years working with coaches Andrea Maldera and Mauro Tassotti in Italy, Shevchenko now has the pair alongside him on the touchline, with their Italian conversations bringing that extra zest of life to the Ukrainian dugout.
A unique 4-1-4-1 formation has seen them through a tricky group, but their averages of 88% passing accuracy and 54% possession have allowed them to take control throughout their encounters against some of Europe’s top teams. They’ve now lost just one of their last 19 games, with a defeat to Slovakia ultimately irrelevant as they still managed to clinch top spot in their UEFA Nations League group.
The head coach has stuck to what and who he knows, with the majority of his squad currently earning their trade at Dynamo Kiev, the club where it all began and indeed ended for Shevchenko. The Kiev contingent form a positive balance with their Shakhtar Donetsk counterparts, who essentially complete the rest of the national team. It’s very much a mixture of youth and experience, with the long list of homegrown players relying on their resilience and togetherness to grind out the results their performances deserve.
The trio of 35-year-old goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov and centre-backs Serhiy Kryvtsov and Mykola Matviyenko have used their chemistry as Shakhtar team-mates to fashion a formidable block at the back for their country, and have been crucial to one of the meanest defences in qualifying. Veteran stopper and captain Pyatov kept five clean sheets and conceded just four goals in the process of winning the group, and he looks set to reach a century of caps at the finals next summer. Add to that the protective barrier of the experienced Shakhtar figure of Taras Stepanenko, and it’s a living nightmare for any of Europe’s top talents.
Moving forward, and the ageing but hugely accomplished Yevhen Konoplyanka, Junior Moraes and Ruslan Malinovskyi that create the perfect counterbalance to the emerging talents of Kiev’s 20-year-old versatile Vitaliy Mykolenko and promising 21-year-old Mykola Shaparenko, who is certain to break into the starting 11 any day now.
Add to that ever-growing list Kiev winger Viktor Tsygankov, who has the world at his feet after following in his manager’s footsteps and clinching the 2018 Ukranian Player of the Year award. And who else to complete an exciting squad than Manchester City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko. The 22-year-old couldn’t contain himself after sealing their place in next summer’s tournament, a hugely refreshing moment to witness, especially for a youngster who has been slotted all over the pitch and still not looked out of place for his country.
West Ham forward Andriy Yarmolenko is also well and truly in the national team picture. His six goals in the 2018 World Cup qualifying still weren’t enough as Ukraine fell short and failed to make the short trip to Russia last summer. He needs 12 more to overtake Shevchenko in the all-time list for his country, and 13 to reach the half-century mark.
Fortunately, the goals are being shared around this time out, but their lack of activity in the final third will be of huge concern for a man who certainly knew where the net was in his prime. The 2004 Ballon d’Or winner oversaw his side score just 17 times in qualifying, a worryingly low stat compared to the other teams to have secured the top spots elsewhere.
Off the pitch, and it seems that the nation rarely finds itself out of the headlines, sadly more often than not for the wrong reasons, or maybe just reasons they may not particularly care for. But the current crop of players are changing that, and they’re being led by one of their own.
With a population of over 40 million, perhaps Ukraine should be faring better in the world of football, but perhaps that hasn’t been their top priority in recent years. They’ve recorded countless astonishing feats and achievements in other sports, particularly in the Olympic Games over the decades, but maybe football is now number one in the hearts of the nation.
To the surprise of many, Shevchenko’s men will head into Euro 2020 as top seeds, and so have been given an extra boost as they begin their preparations for the tournament. Having suffered a miserable early exit last time out, Ukraine will be looking to get going right from the off by maintaining the fine form that has led them to the position they find themselves in. They may not make it all the way to the final in Wembley next summer, but they will certainly be difficult to get past as the nation attempts to make up for lost time on European football’s biggest stage.
Written by Peter Lynch
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