Ukraine head to a third straight European Championships in the summer and having fallen at the first hurdle on both previous occasions, The Main Team could be ones to watch out for.
Drawn in Group C alongside the Netherlands, Austria and North Macedonia, Andrey Shevchenko and his players will see this as a chance to stake their claim as an emerging nation, with them
66/1 for overall glory.
History Hardly on Their Side
While older fans will remember Ukraine as part of the Soviet Union, the inaugural winners in 1960, before finishing second, fourth and runners-up again in the next three editions, things have been a bit tougher since they became an independent nation.
Since first going it alone in Euros qualification for the 1996 tournament, Ukraine have followed a path of glorious failure, most notably when falling to Slovenia in the play-offs for Euro 2000.
Debuting as co-hosts in 2012, they gave a dogged but uninspired account of themselves. In fairness, the camp’s confidence can’t have been high after boss Oleg Blohkin’s pre-tournament musings that “our defenders do not even tackle properly” and the attackers’ “level is very low”.
Four years later, in France, the Yellow and Blue again fell in the group stages having lost all three group games but the talent available to them this time around suggests they could be dark horses.
A Year off; A Year to Develop
Like Blokhin, Shevchenko is a former recipient of the Ballon d’Or; Igor Belanov, the only other Ukrainian winner of the award. However, while his fellow former forward was perhaps regimented in his approach, Sheva has a better feel for modern-day players.
The 44-year-old took charge in 2016 and his playing legacy makes him ideally suited to the role of the international coach as an inspirational figurehead.
Youth has been the watchword during his reign. There is still some experience with 36-year-old goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov the skipper, while Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka remain in and around the squad and a contingent of naturalised Brazilians add further knowhow.
However, the team’s look is very much fresh-faced and led by Manchester City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko. The 24-year-old plays as a marauding full-back domestically but often features centrally for the national side, forming a fabulous partnership with Atalanta’s Ruslan Malinovskyi.
Dynamo Kiev defender Illya Zabarnyi may be just 18 but could also be a regular in the summer. The teenager may even partner 21-year-old club-mate Vitaliy Mykolenko in the heart of the defence, although Shakhtar Donetsk duo Sergiy Kryvtsov and Mykola Matvienko have been first choice, the latter himself only 24.
That quartet epitomises Shevchenko’s approach. The former striker often aims to add solidity to his squad’s sprinklings of stardust by replicating partnerships that work at club level on the international stage.
While illness and injury limited their selection options during the last batch of internationals in November, it is still incredible that 13 of their final squad of 20 was 25 or under and the 12-month delay for this tournament may not be a bad thing as far as the Ukraine are concerned.
Solid Ingredients a Good Recipe for Euros Success
That said, don’t mistake their youthful exuberance for naivety. Ukraine ground their way to qualification, topping a group featuring holders Portugal and a decent Serbia side.
An opening goalless draw in Lisbon set the tone before beating the Selecao 2-1 on home soil to end the campaign unbeaten. In their six wins, they only triumphed by more than a goal twice, conceding just four times, and that’s the type of football that sets you up nicely for a tournament.
As things stand, Shevchenko’s side starts their campaign on June 13 against the Netherlands in Amsterdam and are the
11/2 underdogs to triumph.
The plan is for them to then decamp to Bucharest to take on North Macedonia and Austria. The Red Lynxes are a bit of an unknown quantity, while Das Team have a habit of proving less than the sum of their parts.
With some group set to see three teams qualify, Ukraine are
5/1 to top the pool. Again that might be a stretch, despite there being undoubted talent in this line-up.
While it might be a touch optimistic to suggest they can emulate the Greece of 2004 or Portugal’s exploits five years ago, Ukraine’s cohesion bodes well for a decent summer.
*All odds correct at time of writing