How they got here
Ukraine have managed to sneak their way into the competition via the backdoor, due to the fact that they automatically gained a place upon UEFA accepting their bid to jointly host the tournament.
Why they'll win
Being the host nation of a major international tournament allows for the enjoyment of vociferous local support as well as the comfort of taking to the pitch in familiar surroundings and climes. Such advantages are well documented and for Ukraine this situation could well play into their hands.
Spain, Italy and France have all lifted the European Championship trophy in front of their home support - while Italy, Belgium, West Germany, Sweden, England and the Netherlands have all reached the third placed play off whilst at home. When you consider that the inaugural competition occurred in 1960, then it is quite staggering that the host nations have proved to be such powerful forces throughout the course of the tournament’s lifespan. Ukraine will take heart from the successes of previous championships and, while hosting does not guarantee success, there remains cause for optimism that a successful tournament could be on the cards.
Ukraine will be playing for the pride of the nation at a time when political turmoil is wreaking havoc within the country. The imprisonment of Ukraine’s former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, by her political adversary, President Viktor Yanukovych, has made global headlines amid a dramatic political own goal, no pun intended, by a man who is blinded by a quest for vengeance. The situation has seen various foreign dignitaries withdraw plans to visit Ukraine while others have called for a continent wide boycott of the Ukrainian portion of the tournament.
The Ukrainian players will take to the field with the political turmoil right at the forefront of the nation’s participation in the tournament. It is no surprise that the outrage regarding Tymoshenko’s imprisonment has come at a time when the eyes of the world are on Eastern Europe - Tymoshenko, after all, has the knack of generating support when it is needed most. The general public have pledged allegiance to their former Prime Minister in droves - and the latest polls show that recent events have left Yanukovych with the support of only 10% of the electorate.
Ukrainians have become increasingly distressed by the recent events and such proceedings are sure to seep into the mindset of the players that don the yellow shirt. Should the team take it upon itself to restore the nation’s pride, an emotion that has been badly damaged, and dignity, then the cauldron-like atmosphere that they can create will make this Ukrainian side particularly difficult to overcome.
Despite the obvious non footballing reasons for Ukraine’s potential success during the tournament there remains the fact that there is a decent balance between young and old within the current crop of players. Andriy Shevchenko, Anatoliy Tymoschuk and Andriy Voronin provide a wealth of experience at the height of European football, both internationally and domestically, which will no doubt prove valuable when accompanied by the blossoming talents of Andriy Yarmolenko and Yaroslav Rakitskiy.
Why they won't win
This is a national team which is currently rated as the 50th best in the world according to FIFA’s ranking system, and while such methods of judgement are perhaps flawed, it is not a fact that can be ignored. For Ukraine to reach the latter stages of the tournament they will need to perform at a level that they have never been able to reach since becoming an independent nation following the demise of the Soviet Union.
People will point to Greece’s unexpected triumph in 2004 when asserting that the impossible is indeed possible, however the odds of another upset look unlikely. The likes of Spain, the Netherlands and Germany are, frankly, light years ahead of many other outfits in the tournament, and it is increasingly difficult to look beyond an established power to run out as eventual victors.
The issues for Ukraine lie at both ends of the field. The nation’s coach, Oleh Blokhin, has found himself placed in a mire thanks to a goalkeeping crisis that few would be able to realistically contend with. Three of Ukraine’s first choice keepers will be on the sidelines when the tournament kicks off - the latest of which, Oleksandr Shovkovskiy, was recently ruled out for the months with a shoulder injury. The loss of the vastly experienced Dynamo Kyiv keeper - a man with some 92 caps to his name - was compounded by the fact that Spartak Moscow’s Andriy Dikan suffered a facial injury in March, while Shakhtar Donetsk’s Olexsandr Rybka is currently serving a two year doping ban.
Blokhin looks set to place his faith in Shakhtar’s Andriy Pyatov, who had been serving as Rybka’s deputy prior to his suspension, and he will be supported by any of Oleksandr Horyainov, Maksym Koval and Oleksandr Bandura, all of whom were named in Ukraine’s preliminary squad. Excluding Pyatov, who holds 24 international caps, the remaining three goalkeepers share only a single cap between them - with Horyainov’s sole appearance coming back in 2010. It’s a glaring problem, and one that holds no easy solution, as none of the aforementioned goalkeepers are as reliable as one would hope heading into such a major tournament.
At the opposite end of the field Ukraine lack proven goalscorers at international level, Shevchenko aside. Voronin’s fine performances this season for Dinamo Moscow have indicated that he remains a good option for Blokhin, however his record of 7 goals in 70 games shows that he struggles to make an impact when featuring for Ukraine. The likes of Artem Milevskiy and Yevhen Seleznyov - the Ukrainian Premier League’s top goal scorer - possess undoubted talent, however, as with Voronin, they have struggled to truly express this ability on the international stage.
We've seen before
It’s impossible to look beyond the unmistakable talents of Andriy Shevchenko. The Dynamo forward may well have returned to his homeland as a laughing stock in the west, however his performances in Kyiv have served to reignite his status in the twilight years of his career. It looks likely that he will suffer the heartbreak of witnessing Shakhtar lift yet another league title however the summer could well prove to be the ultimate tonic to his ailments.
He may not possess the pace of his AC Milan days, but there are few substitutes for his awareness, touch and movement - as well as vast experience. It’s unlikely that Shevchenko will be a starter in each of Ukraine’s fixtures, as ageing legs can find the intensity of international tournaments trying, however his presence in and around the squad will no doubt be of immense benefit at a time when the weight of a nation’s expectations are upon 24 men.
Andriy Yarmolenko may, or may not, be a name that many western European fans recognise, however it is not beyond the realms of possibility that in the wake of this tournament everyone will know of his talents.
If Shevchenko remains the King of Ukrainian football, then Yarmolenko is most definitely the Prince. Pace, power and skill are all key facets of the Dynamo Kyiv winger’s game and are sure to cause many full backs serious problems. His ability to cut in from the flank and provide a serious goal threat places him in the realm of the modern wide man who has a responsibility not only to provide but also to finish.
Yarmolenko’s progress during the tournament could well replicate the likes of the Russian forwards Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko whose excellent performances during Euro 2008 - and the season prior - earned them coveted moves to the west. Arsenal are among a number of clubs to have been linked with a move for Yarmolenko, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see this star in the making earn a move to one of Europe’s major sides soon.
How they will play
Over the past couple of years Ukraine have utilised a 442 formation, primarily with a centre forward dropping off to blur the lines between 442 and 4231. Despite utilising a diamond shaped 442 during Germany’s visit to Kyiv in November - a fixture that marked the reopening of the Olimpiyskiy Stadium, which will host the Euro 2012 final - Ukraine will place much emphasis upon a strike force that will revolve around the talents of Milevskiy, Shevchenko and Yarmolenko. They will be accompanied by the likes of Yevhen Konoplyanka, Oleh Gusyev and Oleksandr Aliyev who will likely vie for a spot on the left flank.
Central midfield remains a key area for Ukraine as their holding players permit Yarmolenko to attack from wide positions without necessarily having to become overly concerned with any space left behind. Anatoliy Tymoschuk remains a key figure in the Ukrainian midfield and is often accompanied by Dynamo Kyiv’s Denys Garmash, a player in the ilk of Michael Carrick, who is capable to breaking down attacks through his reading of the play while also being able to make incisive forward passes from deep. Garmash may still be a fledgling on the international scene, however there are few doubts that he is capable of making the step up.
Defensively Ukraine appear have become relatively settled as Oleksandr Kucher and Yaroslav Rakitskiy look certain to be Blokhin’s preferred central defensive partnership while Vorskla’s Yevhen Selin and Bohdan Butko, of Illichivets, are likely to take up the wide positions. There remains a significant element of inexperience within the current Ukraine defence, with only 26 caps between the two full backs and Rakitskiy, however the nation retains a desperate need to blood new talent onto the international scene and now is as good a time as any, despite the stakes being frightfully high.
It is imperative that Ukraine manage to find a suitable balance that will allow them to bring out the best in their attacking talents. A mere two clean sheets in the past eight games points to the fact that Blokhin has not been able to find the magic touch just yet and that is a concern heading into the final straight before the tournament kicks off.
You can pick up the current Ukraine kit directly from Kitbag.com
Domm is editor of the outstanding Slavic Football Union website.