Ukraine have qualified for the finals of a European Championships for the third time in their history. Andriy Shevchenko and his men will participate in the continent’s premier international tournament next summer and go into it with much optimism.
The EURO 2020 draw, which saw Ukraine start the process as a top seed has already provided the first three opponents that the Zbirna will face on the Road to Wembley!
Ukraine were drawn into Group C alongside one of the 12 ‘host’ nations; The Netherlands. Whilst Austria were picked out as the third seed option. The final spot is yet to be confirmed. However, it is guaranteed to be either one of either Romania or the four sides vying it out for the sole Nations League ‘D’ Play Off place; Belarus, Kosovo, Georgia or Northern Macedonia
The Arena Nationala in Bucharest and the Johan Cruyff ArenA in Amsterdam will become the destinations for travelling Ukrainian fans for the initial three group stage matches, with the tournament being held across the continent to celebrate UEFA’s sixtieth birthday! Ukraine will face The Netherlands in the Dutch capital on Matchday One before facing the mystery fourth side and Austria in neighbouring Romania’s largest city.
What can Ukraine expect from its EURO 2020 Group:
Ronald Koeman’s side look to be on their way up after a number of years in the footballing wilderness. They have some big names in their side; including Balon D’Or runner up Virgil Van Dijk and Barcelona’s Frenkie De Jong. With the domestic advantage that The Oranje will have, this could well be a baptism of fire for Andriy Shevchenko in his debut major tournament match in charge. Nevertheless, having kept Portugal at bay in Lisbon and in Kyiv, nothing should be deemed impossible for the Yellow and Blues when it comes to facing European grandeur.
Whilst the weakest side in this pot were the Czech Republic, the central European outfit should certainly be looked at as a beatable entity. Boasting the likes of ex Dynamo Kyiv defender Aleksandr Dragovic, David Alaba of Bayern Munich and former West Ham teammate of Andriy Yarmolenko, Marko Arnautovic, the Austrians undoubtedly have quality in some areas of the pitch. However, they have shown in the recent qualifying campaign that whilst they can rather comfortably dismiss the weaker sides, they struggle against any kind of quality opposition. Ukraine should be expected to clinch all three points in what already looks to be a tight affair.
Romania or Belarus / Georgia / N Macedonia / Kosovo:
It is anticipated that Ukraine will be able to defeat any one of the potential sides hoping to qualify via the Nations League Play Offs. It would be preferable for the Yellow and Blues that Romania fail to get past this extra qualifying round, enabling Ukraine to avoid a clash with another ‘host’ side and not having to play in front of one more partisan home crowd.
Romania are far from spectacular as a team, emphasised by the fact that they failed to finish in the automatic places in their own qualifying group. As such, Ukraine shouldn’t have too many problems on the pitch should they need to face them. Likewise, Ukraine should be able to defeat any of the other weaker sides should it be they who qualify and Romania do not. Ukraine boasts an impressive record against all four in recent history.
Ukraine’s likely EURO squad:
When pressed ahead of Ukraine’s final game of 2019, as to whether he had a fairly strong indication of the squad he will be taking to next year’s tournament, Shevchenko remained coy and said ‘There is still a long way to go and a lot can happen between now and then.’
However, despite this quote from the head coach, it would be classed as rather uncharacteristic of him and his backroom staff to draft in a large amount of surprise selections or instigate a complete squad overhaul before June 2020.
U-20 World Cup winner, Denys Popov could be one of the few wildcard selections that the manager may spring should he continue to flourish at Dynamo post winter break. Another name to keep an eye on would be attacking midfielder Bohdan Lednev. The Zorya Luhansk loan star will be aiming to force his way in as a late trump card.
Expected 23 Man Squad:
The Goalkeepers: Pyatov, Lunin, Boyko
The Defenders: Matvienko, Karavayev, Kryvstov, Sobol, Bolbat, Mykolenko, Plastun, Popov
The Midfielders: Yarmolenko, Konoplyanka, Malinovksyi, Marlos, Bezus, Tsyhankov, Kovalenko, Stepanenko, Sydorchuk, Zinchenko
The Forwards: Yaremchuk, Junior Moraes
A Historic 2019!
Ukraine ended the calendar year unbeaten for the first time in their history! Out of the ten games played, Ukraine won seven and drew three. Many will look back on fixtures against Portugal and Serbia as the most memorable and significant when it comes to the legacy of Andriy Shevchenko and his hybrid Ukrainian, Italian and Spanish backroom team. Much optimism arises from a qualifying campaign that featured a number of firsts, none more important so than the finishing position – top; meaning Ukraine qualified for a European Championships as group winners for the first time!
As a result of these unbeaten feats, they were also rewarded with a top seed in the EURO draw. In years to come people will look back on the 2-1 defeat of reigning European Champions Portugal in Kyiv and the breath-taking 5-0 demolition of Serbia as generation defining games of the Shevchenko Era. The impressive achievement did require a last gasp equaliser in Belgrade in the final game of the year to draw 2-2 and complete the invincible 12 months. So much so that the ‘fight until the very
end’ attitude has come to characterise this new ‘golden’ generation for the Ukraine National Football Team!
Cause for optimism
The Shevchenko regime has instilled a new ‘never say die’ attitude in the squad psyche. This shows a marked psychological change from teams and managers of years gone by. Going behind in a game is no longer a game lost. Heads do not drop, rather the determination to get back into the game increases and the desire to fight until the death has never been more visible. There is a belief in the collective ability that the squad possesses when on the pitch, all whilst being grounded and showing little signs of egotism off it.
Most importantly and rather complimentary of the new team mentality is the balance in ability across the park. There is real quality in each position, with no real dead weights in Shevchenko’s primary starting XI.
Further to this, there is no standout star that hogs all the heroic headlines, as the manager regularly did during his playing days. There is less reliance on one talisman, rather now all the starters have become vital cogs in a big machine.
The extended squad also has some quality scattered in amongst it, with many of whom seizing their opportunities when coming on, showing former coaches such as Fomenko, that rotation and tactical replacements are key to any successful manager’s portfolio.
The Key Performers
Ukraine’s midfield trio has been indispensable over the past 18 months.
Taras Stepanenko plays at the base of it. He is the player who labours along as the team’s unsung hero with his impact not being truly noticed until he’s not there. It is absolutely vital that he remains fit for next summer, with many in the media calling him the squad’s most indispensable player.
Ruslan Malinovksyi and Oleksandr Zinchenko have also come into their own this year. The latter broke into the first team of a domestic treble winning Manchester City side; despite being deployed as an unorthodox left back. Guardiola’s genius helped him develop into a more complete and rounded midfielder, adding defensive awareness to his game. His defensive abilities have improved ten fold as has his maturity on the field. A future captain lies in wait.
Likewise, Malinovksyi has been integral to the spine of this side. His work ethic in midfield and ability to drive with the ball from box to box, has been a joy to watch and helped catalyse a number of counter attacking moves that ultimately resulted in goals. His set piece deliveries and personal goal scoring contributions were vital in helping Ukraine qualify. This could very well be the greatest midfield three Ukraine has ever had!
Also a couple of special mentions need to be given to Roman Yaremchuk and Andriy Pyatov. The former looks to have finally found his feet as the long awaited heir to Shevchenko up front. It took him a while to get going, but now he’s started, it looks difficult for him to stop scoring. Of course, he is nowhere near winning the Balon D’Or (just yet) but he looks to be the missing ‘goal-scoring
forward’ piece of the puzzle that Ukraine have struggled to replace since the current manager retired from playing!
Meanwhile Andriy Pyatov had the year of his life in goal for the Zbirna! Whilst his performances for Shakhtar on occasion have continued to be dubious, his displays for the national side have been immaculate. A few key saves in both fixtures against Portugal ensured that Ronaldo was subjected to a torrid time, and a record of just four goals conceded in eight games helps further his cause to being named Ukraine’s greatest every goalkeeper, should he give a good showing of himself in 2020.
Across the board, Ukraine have never looked so connected and united as a group, with morale and fan relations at an all-time high. It would certainly not be too far-fetched to name Ukraine as one of the dark horses at next year’s European football extravaganza!
Shevchenko: A better manager than many expected him to be?
When Andriy Shevchenko was first announced as the heir to the underachieving and uncharismatic Mykhailo Fomenko, the news was met with a considerable amount of scepticism. Despite being a national team legend on the pitch, he was very much a managerial novice off of it. A rookie had been given the pinnacle of any Ukrainian manager’s career as his first senior coaching role.
Nevertheless, even ahead of what will ultimately define Shevchenko in his role as Ukraine National Team Head Coach, EURO 2020; the hallmarks are there for him to be elevated, even above Oleh Blokhin should he continue the success of the past two years into the new decade. Ukraine have suffered just one defeat in the past two calendar years under his tenure, whilst finishing top of their Nations League and EURO 2020 Qualifying groups.
Shevchenko can’t be given all the credit though. The sublime coaching set up behind him have equally played a significant role in the side’s recent development. Italian’s Mauro Tassotti and Andrea Maldera, Spaniard Pedro Luis Jaro and Ukraine’s very own Oleksandr Shovkovsky have each assisted and contributed their own forms of training and preparation that has enabled the side to flourish in a dynamic and open environment.