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[av_heading heading=’Analysis of euro 2016 teams: Ukraine’ tag=’h1′ style=’blockquote modern-quote modern-centered’ size=’46’ subheading_active=” subheading_size=’15’ padding=’10’ color=’custom-color-heading’ custom_font=’#ffffff’][/av_heading]

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Author: Iain Macintosh

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When you’re this close to the start of a major international tournament, most avenues have already been explored. We know the favourites: France; Spain and Germany. We know the nations that have it within them to win, but probably won’t: Belgium; Italy and England. We know the dark horses: Austria; Croatia and Poland. We even know the minnows: Albania; Hungary and Northern Ireland. But what about the middle ground? What about the teams with just a puncher’s chance of glory? What about Ukraine?

Long has there been potential in Ukraine, rarely has it been realised at international level. Their high water mark after the break-up of the Soviet Union is still the quarter-final they reached in the 2006 World Cup, product of wins over Saudi Arabia and Tunisia and a successful penalty shoot-out against Switzerland in the worst football match of all time.

They won only once as co-hosts of Euro 2012 and suffered the indignity of losing to England. On five occasions (1998, 2000, 2002, 2010, 2014) they’ve missed out on tournament qualification in play-offs. It is fair to say that there is room for improvement here. But is this the summer we see it?
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Image from Wyscout  Match Report

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Mykhaylo Fomenko’s side play a fairly orthodox 4-2-3-1 and if you’re the sort of person who reads articles like this, you’re the sort of person who doesn’t need me to tell you that his two star players are Andriy Yarmolenko of Dynamo Kiev and Yevhen Konoplyanka of Sevilla. In the 3-1 win over Albania last week, Denys Garmash occupied the number ten role behind tenacious striker Roman Zozulya, a man currently serving a six month domestic ban for punching a referee. Protection to the back four that night came in the form of Serhiy Sydorchuk and Shakhtar’s Taras Stepenenko, who had a violent and protracted spat with Yarmolenko when their teams met in the league. They are, it must be said, a lively bunch.

Ukraine were not particularly impressive in qualifying. They were unable to beat either Spain or Slovakia and reached the play-offs (which for once they didn’t lose) by virtue of six victories over Belarus, Luxembourg and Macedonia. They don’t score too many, or at least they didn’t until this run of May friendlies, but they don’t concede many either, just the four in the qualifying campaign. This in itself is remarkable because Ukraine have Andriy Pyatov in goal, a man who evokes memories of Leeds United’s Gary Sprake, in that you know he must be competent otherwise he wouldn’t be there, but you only ever remember him making horrible errors. Indeed, if you Google “Pyatov Mistake” you’ll find no stand-out champion, just ten links that reference six different calamities.

Pyatov was arguably at fault for all three of Romania’s goals in the uncharacteristically exciting clash with Ukraine at the end of May. He was beaten at his near post twice and also left a soft free-kick slip through his hands. Fortunately, his team-mates had already scored four. He could have done better for the goal he conceded against Albania too, though the real blame lies with Yaroslav Rakitskiy. The Shakhtar Donetsk centre-back ran out to challenge Odise Roshi for a high ball and came a very distinct second. Roshi nodded the ball into the Rakitskiy-shaped gap in the Ukrainian back line and Armando Sadiku rifled the ball through Pyatov’s grasp from close range.

This wasn’t the only time that Ukraine looked oddly vulnerable at the back. Ten minutes before the break, Sadiku found himself in yards of space between Rakitskiy and Yevhen Khacheridi. This time, Pyatov saved the day, positioning himself perfectly for the shot, which when it finally came, lacked the strength to do any damage.
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Ukraine had actually taken the lead early on, through Stepanenko’s early deft finish. It was a goal that came from a quickly taken free kick, but a quickly taken free kick that was won in a strong position thanks to the relentlessness of Zozulya and Garmash. And this is key to Ukraine’s game.

They are obviously dangerous from the flanks where Yarmolenko and Konoplyanka run wild and free. But when they press, they can tackle with such ferocity that they can force mistakes. And even in a friendly, they were chasing and harrying and following up shots all the way to the final whistle. That’s how the game was won: Yarmolenko following up Zozulya’s header two minutes into the second half; Konoplynaka making himself first on the spot when substitute Viktor Kovalenko shot was parried by Etrit Berisha.

It was also interesting to see Konoplyanka slipping infield after half an hour, dropping deeper into a sort of temporary quarter-back role and attempting to dictate the play. That might catch a few sides unawares. Ukraine are not favourites to progress from a tricky group containing Germany, Poland and Northern Ireland and you’d have to acknowledge that there are enough powder kegs in this team for a red card or two to completely compromise their chances. It’s also unwise to read too much into a victory over Albania, even though this was a far more ambitious and impressive performance from Gianni de Biasi’s side than we’ve seen recently. But they certainly have something here.

If their tails are up, if they’re ready for a scrap and if they get a bit of luck…you never know. You certainly wouldn’t want to face this lot if their backs are against the wall.
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Iain Macintosh
Is a football writer for ESPNFC and the editor of  The Set Pieces

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