19 June 2012

Ukraine Desperate for England Scalp in Hostile Donetsk

When the Ukraine national football team was reformed after the break-down of the Soviet Union in 1994 they struggled to compete at the highest level. Despite there being many talented Ukrainian players like Andrei Kanchelskis, Sergeu Yuran and Oleg Salenko; most of them chose to play for Russia after it was named the official replacement for the USSR. As a result the national team failed to put their stamp on the world game.

In the years that followed they improved rapidly as players of the calibre of Andriy Shevchenko, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk and Serhiy Rebrov emerged. Surprisingly though they failed to reach the finals of a major tournament as they lost in play-offs for World Cups 1998 and 2002 and Euro 2000. After a disastrous Euro 2004 qualifying campaign current coach Oleh Blokhin took over at the helm. After his appointment results immediately improved and they qualified for the 2006 World Cup where they made a great run to the quarter-finals. They beat Tunisia and Saudi Arabia to reach the last 16 where they overcame Switzerland on penalties after a 0-0 draw. Their run was ended in the last eight by eventual champions Italy as they fell to a 3-0 defeat.

However the Yellow-Blues were well accepted after the World Cup and went on to reach a record high of 11 in the FIFA World rankings the following Autumn. As their top players like Shevchenko and Voronin started to lose form Ukraine started to slip down the footballing ladder; narrowly missing out on Euro 2008 before losing in yet another play-off, this time to Greece, for a place in World Cup 2010. They did beat England in that 2010 campaign in Dnipro after goalkeeper Rob Green was sent off. Despite Shevchenko missing the resulting penalty the Ukraine scored through a deflected Sergiy Nazarenko strike to claim a 1-0 win.

Tonight they face England again in what is probably the biggest match in Ukrainian football history. As co-hosts for Euro 2012 they stunned Sweden in the opening game, coming from behind to win 2-1 with goals from all-time record goalscorer Shevchenko. Despite a 2-0 defeat to France a win tonight would ensure qualification. Many of the players have big tournament experience as players like Shevchenko, Tymoshchuk and Voronin played in Germany in 2006. However now they have other dangerous players in their side such as Nazarenko and Dynamo Kiev duo Yarmolenko and Aliyev.

This evening England are sure to face a hostile reception from the Donetsk crowd in their search for the point that will give them a place in the last eight. They will also be facing a talented group of players desperate to reach the knock-out stages of a major competition for the second time and make up for all those play-off defeats of the past. For many of the Ukrainian players it could be a last hurrah and they will certainly make the most of it.

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