That said, Ukraine didn’t qualify for either EURO 2008 or the last World Cup, and they are up against some tough opponents, in the shape of England, France and Sweden. Leading the pack in that, at least in FIFA rankings, are England in 7th place, with France in 16th, Sweden in 17th and Ukraine all the way down in 50th.
Ukraine have actually played against France and Sweden in the last year, in friendly fixtures here in Ukraine, losing 1-4 and 0-1 respectively. On the plus side, their record against England is a bit better, with a narrow 1-2 reversal at Wembley in April of 2009, before beating them 1-0 in Dnipropetrovsk later that year.
As for personnel, their legendary captain, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, one of two foreign-based players (the other being Andriy Voronin) with Bayern Munich, has endured an indifferent season, only being played due to injuries and then being played out of position. As for Shevchenko, doubts remain whether he will even make the final 23, due to be announced any day now. And then there’s the goalkeepers...
Position: Forward/Left Winger
Strengths: Skilful, young, tall, and a very good scoring record at club and international level. The team will need his drive, goals and assists if they are to progress.
Weaknesses: Inexperienced in tournament football, his final delivery is still inconsistent.
Strengths: He is a legend, having enjoyed a career showered with club and individual awards. His scoring record for the national team is phenomenal; he’s been there and done it.
Weaknesses: Has been dogged by injuries, his best days seem to be behind him, and he’s just had an indifferent season with Dynamo.
Position: Centre Back
Strengths: A huge figure, at nearly 2 metres tall, he will have the responsibility of shutting out opponents’ attack. He is a hard-tackling presence who knows how to clear his lines.
Weaknesses: Still very inexperienced at the national level. Not the most mobile of players and yet to perform at his best in the international arena.
Strengths: Capable of match-winning saves, versatile, reads the game well, and experience of top-level football having played against the likes of Barcelona.
Weaknesses: With regular goalkeepers Oleksandr Shovkovskiy, Oleksandr Rybka and Andriy Dikan all either injured or suspended, a lot of pressure is on his shoulders. And, at under 6 foot, there are questions about his stature.
The WO Verdict
The Ukrainian team will need every one of their advantages to come into play to avoid being eliminated on their home soil just over a week after their tournament begins. On paper, making it out of the group stages looks unlikely. But then, of course, football is not played on paper.
We caught up with a Ukrainian legend who has done it on the biggest stage, Serhiy Baltacha. This was what he had to say:
How do you rate Ukraine’s chances?
I think we have a decent chance of at least getting out of the group stages. Obviously home advantage is important, the guys will need the Ukrainian support to get behind them and spur them on.
What about the players, any standouts for you?
For me, it’s not about individual players, it’s about the team. I played for the Soviet UNI0N in the 1982 World Cup (where he scored) and 1988 European Championship. In 1982, we got out of the group stages but no further, in 1988 we made it all the way to the final. The difference wasn’t so much quality of players, as overall team spirit.
And the manager?
Obviously I know Oleh Blokhin very well, we played together for Dynamo Kyiv and the Soviet UNI0N national team. He was a fantastic player and is a great manager. I trust that he will get the best out of his team.
Should Shevchenko go?
Sheva has been a legend for the Ukrainian national team and will always be remembered for what he has done. Whether he should be included in the squad for this tournament is entirely about his form and fitness.
Finally, as a man who’s been there and done it, what is your advice to the current Ukrainian team, many of whom are going into their first major tournament?
It’s all about believing in yourself, believing in your teammates. You have to be able to motivate yourself and then share that motivation with those around you. That’s the key to success in football, of course on the bigger stage the stakes are higher, but the principles are the same.