In 20 years since independence, Ukrainian supporters have got used to seeing a national team with a strong defensive impulse, who have benefited from the brilliance of their forwards to shred teams on the counterattack.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the USSR team – once a footballing powerhouse – was replaced by 15 national sides, all of them left to start to forge a reputation from scratch. Ukraine’s historic strength has been their ability to produce great front men, from Oleh Blokhin and Ihor Belanov in Soviet times, to the likes of Serhiy Rebrov and Andriy Shevchenko more recently.
The current Ukraine team may be the most attack-minded in the nation’s history, with young wingers Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko helping to put some sparkle into a capable midfield. However, given that they have not played a competitive game since the end of 2010 FIFA World Cup qualifying, no one knows quite what to expect from them. Ukrainian fans are now desperate – and this is no exaggeration – to see what their team are made of in tomorrow’s game against Sweden in Group D.
Former FC Dynamo Kyiv and USSR midfielder Olexandr Zavarov feels confident, saying: “Ukraine play more skilful football than Sweden. Ukraine will score for sure, though I also don’t think we will keep a clean sheet.” The main reason for that concern is the presence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Zavarov’s former Dynamo and USSR team-mate, Serhiy Baltacha, said: “Our guys need to mark Ibrahimovic. I don’t think the other Swedish players can cause us as many problems.”
Dynamo centre-backs Yevhen Khacheridi and Taras Mikhalik would seem the obvious options to do that marking job. Khacheridi can handle the aerial threat, while Mikhalik is an expert in tidying up if any balls go loose at the back. FC Vorskla Poltava’s Yevhen Selin looks a good bet to start at left-back, with Oleh Gusev expected to revert to right-back from his usual position on the wing. That would leave FC Bayern München’s Anatoliy Tymoshchuk to anchor the midfield, paired with either the attack-minded Serhiy Nazarenko or the more defensive Ruslan Rotan, depending on how Blokhin sees the game unfolding. Yarmolenko and Konoplyanka would then be deployed on the wings, looking to disorient their opponents with regular switches of flank.
In attack, things would seem more predictable, with recent FC Shakhtar Donetsk signing Marko Devic to be paired with FC Dinamo Moskva’s Andriy Voronin. “What’s happened to Voronin with Dinamo is a mystery to me,” said Blokhin, demonstrating his faith in the forward. “Before the winter break, Voronin was one of the team leaders, and later he ended up on the sidelines. He’s probably not in the best shape or condition, but he’s training with the rest of the group now and he’s trying to reach his best form.”
The 35-year-old Andriy Shevchenko is likely to be held in reserve in the second half to make maximum use of his predatory instincts. “Personally, I am most comfortable playing as a spearhead,” he said. “I have always played in this position and that hasn’t changed for me.” There are other options. Yevhen Seleznyov, with his heading ability, offers an aerial threat if Blokhin needs to go more direct in the last minutes while the skilful Artem Milevskiy is also capable of causing problems.