Photo: UAF

This is a translated article originally written in Ukrainian for The Ukrainian Sports Press Association (16/03/21)

2021 marks a historic year for the ‘Holovna Komanda’. The next 10 months will prove to be a huge test of the side’s strength and character. Ahead of them are the 2022 World Cup Qualifiers and the long awaited EURO 2020! Despite the postponements and difficulties of the previous 12 months – Ukraine will be expected to build on the progress made in Nations League A last year and the EURO qualifiers of 2019.

A record number of matches

2021 will see Zbirna take part in a minimum of 16* matches:

8 World Cup qualifiers

5 friendlies

3 Euro group stage games

*This number could be extended to as much as 20 depending on how far Ukraine progresses in this summer’s continental competition.

16 games in itself is a record quantity of national team games for a calendar year. This will surpass the previous record tally of 2006, in which Ukraine played 14 games (including the World Cup finals campaign). It marks a stark contrast to last year, when Ukraine played their least amount of matches (5) in the past 20 years.

Photo: Pavlo Kubanov

Personal records: potential centurions

If personal national team records are taken into account, then two players have have a great chance of replicating the achievements of  Tymoshchuk, Shevchenko and Rotan and entering the prestigious ‘100 Cap club’. Shakhtar’s Andriy Pyatov (96) and West Ham’s Andriy Yarmolenko (92) need 4 and 8 caps respectively to become the 4th and 5th incumbents of this elite members group.

There is one other player who can also reach the accolade in the same calendar year; Yevhen Konoplyanka sits on 86 caps. He will need to feature in 14 out of the minimum 16 games that Ukraine will play, but whether he gets there will depend on a number of parameters. With his club form questionable of late, it is difficult to predict whether he will be able to do this in 2021 or indeed ever, with new up and coming players offering tough competition against the winger’s place in the Zbirna squad as a whole. However, he has been included in the March squad, so there is the chance that he may move closer to the century!

The ‘Oldest player’ accolade and Clean Sheet landmark for Pyatov

Over the past 6 months, there have been rumours that Andriy Pyatov may retire following the conclusion of Ukraine’s Euros campaign. However, should he decide to hold on a little further and is allowed to prolong his international career beyond the tournament and make an appearance in any Ukraine match following 20thSeptember 2021 – the legendary keeper will become the oldest player to ever represent Zbirna, overtaking Anatoliy Tymoshchuk (37 years, 2 months and 22 days). 

Photo: Pavlo Kubanov

With Shevchenko’s considered focus on youth over the past few years, it may well take another few generations to break the age barrier; if even Pyatov himself is unable to overtake it. Tymoshchuk’s record was most recently under threat, when 45 year old Oleksandr Shovkovskiy made the bench in a friendly versus France last year. However, circumstances did not require the need for Shevchenko to bring on the long retired goalkeeper and current member of his backroom staff. 

On his road to 100 caps and oldest player award; Pyatov can pick up one more additional honour. He can overtake the aforementioned Oleksandr Shovkovskiy in the Zbirna clean sheet record table. Pyatov is currently on 45, whilst Shovkovskiy claimed 46 shutouts, over the course of his own international career.  Albeit, taking into account, the fact that Pyatov has been displaced as Shakhtar’s number one, in favour of 19 year old Anatoliy Trubin – getting two additional caps would be an achievement in itself, let alone two clean sheets!

In the Sniper’s foresight

Meanwhile, Andriy Yarmolenko has arguably the most prestigious record in his sights – to become the all-time top goal scorer in the history of the Yellow & Blues. He has been sitting in second (38), to his current manager Andriy Shevchenko (48 goals), for a number of years now. However, he still remains 11 goals off eclipsing his mentor and childhood idol. 

Photo: Pavlo Kubanov

Analysing the games ahead, there is every chance that Yarmolenko can close in on that tally. However, his goal scoring contributions for the team have dropped significantly in recent seasons, so it puts the realisation of reaching Shevchenko’s tally as unlikely. In both 2019 and 2020, Yarmolenko scored just a single goal for Ukraine, due to injury hampering large parts of those calendar years. The most goals Yarmolenko scored inside 12 months was 7, back in 2016, from 12 appearances. With so many games on offer this year – it’s likely we will see the West Ham forward draw closer. Whether he can score with such frequency to achieve the prized accolade, seems more improbable. If not, there’s always 2022!

Regardless as to whether Yarmolenko & Pyatov break their personal records or not, the name ‘Andriy’ really seems to hold a special connotation in the Zbirna record books, at both ends of the pitch!

***

An unusual start to the season

Ukraine begin their 2021 fixture list with a trio of games in March in strange circumstances. The Qatar World Cup qualifying campaign gets underway, before the prior Euros have even taken place. 

The first match is another attempt at playing France, in Paris, in March. France were supposed to be Euro warm up opponents during the same month of 2020 but due to known reasons, was ultimately postponed. The rearranged fixture, in October of the same year, took place but some would have hoped that it didn’t. Ukraine were handed their record defeat; a 7-1 thrashing in the Stade De France which saw Shevchenko field a hugely experimental side as his squad was decimated by Covid. Hopes will be that this time round, Ukraine will be able to inflict revenge for that loss and for the heart-breaking agony of the 2014 World Cup play offs (3-2 aggregate loss).

Photo: Getty Images

In the same international break, Ukraine face familiar foes; Finland, who they confronted in their last World Cup qualifying campaign (2018) and Kazakhstan. Finland in particular, as fellow Euro 2020 participants, will offer brilliant competition in the run up to the summer. Whilst the match versus Kazakhstan will become the 130th home game for the Blue & Yellows.

Warm up for the Euros

Two months later, after the end of the domestic club season, the team reunites once again. A potential cross country tour of Ukraine (Covid dependant) sees Zbirna take part in 3 warm up games before the biggest summer of their careers! Venue locations are yet to be confirmed but based on a similar format for 2020; Kharkiv, Kyiv & Lviv are likely looking at hosting a game each with the opponents arranged by the UAF. 

The most interesting of these ties is the first. Ukraine face Bahrain, who sit 97th in the FIFA rankings, come in as replacements for Israel. Israel are the only side not retained from the previously arranged warm up schedule of 2020. This fixture will be another one add to the history books. It will be the very first time Ukraine and Bahrain meet on a football pitch and in doing so the Persian Gulf state will become Ukraine’s 69th unique opponent. Following this, Ukraine are hoping to come up against Northern Ireland and Cyprus. However, contracts have yet to be officially signed. In the likeliness all parties do come to an agreement, Ukraine will be given another shot at revenge; this time against the side that ultimately dumped them out of Euro 2016 – Northern Ireland. 

Photo: UEFA

EURO 2020 – The main event of the year

The main event of the year is undoubtably, Ukraine’s 3rd appearance at a European Championships. The anticipation for the postponed tournament has been off the scale. There are high hopes for Ukraine going into it, following their impressive qualifying campaign and valiant showing in League A of the 2020 Nations League.

The Ukrainians have never got out of the group at the Euros. Andriy Shevchenko has repeatedly stated that this is the absolute minimum aim of his side. Following the humiliation of Euro 2016 – where Ukraine lost all three games and scored zero goals in the process; hopes are that this will bettered in momentous style to get them into the latter stages. 

In total Ukraine have picked up just three points in their entire European Championship history so ambitions are on the table to improve on this. Ukraine’s confirmed EUROs opponents Netherlands, Austria & N Macedonia have all faced the Zbirna before. There is only one qualified side in the final tournament that Ukraine has yet to face before and that is Belgium. Should Ukraine make it deep into the competition this meeting may become a reality.

The continuation of the World Cup Qualifying Campaign

With the contintental tournament concluded in July, regardless of Ukraine’s successes or failures – there will be no time for dwelling on the past once the autumn comes around. World Cup qualifying resumes with fixtures against Kazakhstan and France in September as well as a friendly with the Czech Republic. October’s international break will see Ukraine take on Finland again and for the first time ever, Bosnia. Bosnia will become Ukraine’s 70th unique challenger. 

This will leave just 4 UEFA nations that Ukraine has yet to face in an official FIFA sanctioned match. The sides are Republic of Ireland, Gibraltar, Liechtenstein and Belgium (if Ukraine doesn’t meet them at EUROs). The European collection is almost complete!

Photo: Pavlo Kubanov

Ukraine will then round the year off with a friendly against Bulgaria, and close off the qualifying campaign with the reverse fixture against Bosnia. Any potential play offs for the tournament will take place in the spring of 2022 – which coincides with Ukraine’s 30th anniversary as a FIFA recognized nation!

2021 is the year of significant milestones, both personal and collective, for the national team! Against the backdrop of Covid and uncertainty – it is anticipated that Ukraine will still mark this as a positive year that will live long in the memory of its fans!

This article, in part, inspired the season opener of ‘In the heart of the National Team’ series on Youtube. If you would like to watch the episode – click here

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