Euro 2012 preview: Ukraine
Ukraine: welcoming the world (well, Europe)
The co-hostsÃ¢ÂÂ preparations for Euro 2012 have been inauspicious. After working their way through three coaches Ã¢ÂÂ Alexei Mikhailichenko, Myron Markevych and Yuriy Kalitvintsev Ã¢ÂÂ in two years, they returned to Oleg Blokhin last April.
The former Dynamo Kiev and Soviet Union forward led Ukraine to their only previous major tournament, the 2006 World Cup in Germany, then took them to the last eight. He is determined to make a similar mark on home turf. Ã¢ÂÂThis tournament is very special for me as I never played at a European Championship, so I want to catch up as a coach,Ã¢ÂÂ he says. Ã¢ÂÂI hope Euro 2012 will be remembered for the successful performance of our national team.Ã¢ÂÂ
Results in friendlies over the past two years offer little justification for BlokhinÃ¢ÂÂs optimism. While he can point to a win over Norway in 2010 and a 3-3 draw with Germany late last year, Ukraine have been betean by every other decent side they have come up against Ã¢ÂÂ including at home to group opponents Sweden and France, who thrashed them 4-1. TheyÃ¢ÂÂve also lost to the Czechs and the Italians, suggesting Ukraine will struggle to make an impression in June.
It wonÃ¢ÂÂt just be Chelsea fans who find it remarkable that Andriy Shevchenko continues to captain his country and lead their line. Even at the 2006 World Cup, before he moved to Stamford Bridge, the 2004 Ballon dÃ¢ÂÂOr winner looked a spent force, and his continued presence underlines a paucity of options. Blokhin is clearly underwhelmed by the other senior strikers at his disposal.
Ã¢ÂÂWe donÃ¢ÂÂt call up players for their beautiful eyes Ã¢ÂÂ in my team I only want players who are prepared to fight for our country,Ã¢ÂÂ he snarled recently. That was primarily a dig at forwards Artem Milevskiy and Andriy Voronin, whose performances have not been as big as their reputations. Ã¢ÂÂThese players need to be our leaders, but they are not fulfilling their potential,Ã¢ÂÂ Blokhin said. Ã¢ÂÂIf this doesnÃ¢ÂÂt change they may not be included in my selection. I donÃ¢ÂÂt look at the names.Ã¢ÂÂ
One name who wonÃ¢ÂÂt be too familiar outside Ukraine yet, but who is capturing local hearts Ã¢ÂÂ BlokhinÃ¢ÂÂs included Ã¢ÂÂ is MilevskiyÃ¢ÂÂs Dynamo Kiev team-mate Andriy Yarmolenko. Ã¢ÂÂWhen he's on his game, he's unstoppable,Ã¢ÂÂ purrs Blokhin of the 22-year-old, who has already written himself into the record books with UkraineÃ¢ÂÂs quickest ever goal, 15 seconds into a friendly against Uruguay.
With speed and quick feet, Yarmolenko was originally deployed as a winger or even a left-back, but is now deployed as a playmaker and is raking in the plaudits. Ã¢ÂÂYarmolenko is the future of Ukrainian football,Ã¢ÂÂ says Shevchenko. Ã¢ÂÂHe has a rare combination of physical strength and football intelligence.Ã¢ÂÂ Meanwhile, Dynamo coach Yuri Syomin calls him Ã¢ÂÂthe most industrious and inventive player in the squad, with a work rate 20% higher than anyone elseÃ¢ÂÂ. The big stage awaits.
Yarmolenko (left) and Milevskiy: much to prove
Lessons from their last tournament
Shevchenko may be a national icon but he is no miracle worker. This will be his 17th year in the national team, and he simply does not have enough guile to make up for the diminishing pace. Goals may generally prove hard to come by, given that at Germany 2006, Ukraine only managed to score in open play against Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.
Disciplinarian Blokhin has restored a sense of purpose to a squad undermined by a lack of continuity. In record-cap holder Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, Ukraine have a tireless midfield general who has been on song for Bayern Munich this season without being overplayed.
Ukraine may have got their infrastructure ready for Euro 2012 Ã¢ÂÂ just Ã¢ÂÂ but will the team be Ã¢ÂÂfit for purposeÃ¢ÂÂ? Having had no competitive football for two years, their final preparations involve friendlies against Austria and Estonia Ã¢ÂÂ two teams they have already beaten in the last year. This seems like an attempt to secure soft victories, rather than the sort of full-blooded warm-up needed for encounters with Sweden, France and England. Moreover, the pressure of trying to please the local public might make home support more of a burden than a boon.
Did you know...?
Tymoshchuk has something of a Lothar Matthaus fixation. He once wrote to the former German enforcer to ask for a signed shirt, and also owns his USA 94 armband, which he has been known to wear when captaining club or country.
Dmytro Dzhulai, Setanta Eurasia commentator
Ã¢ÂÂUnity will be key for a team representing a country thatÃ¢ÂÂs been criminally divided by a ruling clique. Dirty politicking has stained the league season and players from Dynamo and Shakhtar will have to put all that aside to form a cohesive and solid squad. If anyone is known for his ability to make his players work for the common good it is Oleg Blokhin, who had always stressed the importance of Ã¢ÂÂplaying for the shirtÃ¢ÂÂ. Tactically, the team is at its best when sitting back and hitting on the counter, as in the first half of their 3-3 draw with Germany. But the same game also highlighted a major weakness: any quick and classy opponent will cause Ukraine many problems.Ã¢ÂÂ
Leaky defence makes quarter-finals unlikely.
Hail to the chief: or will it be taxi for Blokhin?
The Russian-born Dynamo Kiev forward, dubbed the Ã¢ÂÂnew ShevaÃ¢ÂÂ, has been in fine form this season, finding the net 12 times in 20 league appearances. No surprise Premier League clubs are monitoring the dynamic 22-year-old, who can also play on the left and has scored seven times for his country.
The first Ukrainian to win the Ballon dÃ¢ÂÂOr in 1975, Blokhin returned for a second spell as manager in April last year. During his first stint he led his country to the quarter-finals of the 2006 World Cup and his experience will be vital if the co-hosts are to progress. Hard on underperforming players but he can unite a team that appear divided at club level.
How they play
Blokhin has favoured a 4-4-2 system during most of UkraineÃ¢ÂÂs warm-up friendlies, but has experimented with 4-5-1 and 4-3-3. A midfield four seems most likely, with BayernÃ¢ÂÂs Tymoshchuk playing the defensive role and the wide players supporting the two strikers, most likely to be Artem Milevskiy and Andriy Shevchenko. Young Yarmolenko will provide a real threat.
June 11, Sweden (Kiev, 7.45pm)
June 15, France (Donetsk, 5pm)
June 19, England (Donetsk, 7.45pm)
Ukraine are 40/1 to win the Euros, and Shevchenko is 100/1 to be tournament top scorer.
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FOURFOURTWO'S EURO 2012 PREVIEWS
Grp A: Poland Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Russia Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Greece Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Czech Republic
Grp B: Netherlands Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Germany aÃ¢ÂÂ¢ Portugal Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Denmark
Grp C: Spain Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Italy Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Croatia Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Republic of Ireland
Grp D: Ukraine Ã¢ÂÂ¢ England Ã¢ÂÂ¢ France Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Sweden
...and there's more: try Back of the Net's satirical previews