The Final of the UEFA Europa League, the second tier continental championship in Europe, is just around the corner. Will it bring about a fairy tale ending for a small club from Ukraine? Debojyoti Chakraborty pays tribute to one of the most inspiring underdog stories in modern football here at Goalden Times.
A country devastated by civil war;One of the largest economies of Europe buried into deep depression;Citizens of the country having lost any realistic hope of closure;Media discourse and day-to-day conversations inevitably circling around the crisis.If only there was some inspirational story to encourage them, some landmark achievement to instil optimism among a hapless bunch of people, some significant victory to unite the citizens of the country and make them believe that everything will soon be alright. This is why the success of FC Dnipro is unique – it provides the suffering people of Ukraine an escape route from everything bad that has happened, if only for a while – like a small ray of light in darkness, a moment of happiness in sorrow.
Football Club Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, an established club in Ukraine,had hardly achieved anything significant beyond domestic football. In fact, even at national level, their last successful campaign was more than 15 years ago when they were crowned the champions of the then Soviet Premier League. Their only historical significance remains in them being the first professional football club in the old Soviet Union in 1989. But all of that is about to change shortly. Within a couple of days, they are about to play the biggest game in the history of the club – the final of the UEFA EUROPA League.
As the runner up of the Ukrainian Premier league, Dnipro qualified for the 2014-15 UEFA Champions League third qualifying round. They could not make it beyond that stage as the 2014 pro-Russian conflict in Ukraine hampered their pre-season and the qualifying matches came too early in the season for them. They drew blanks against FC Copenhagen at home but the match hogged the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Visiting Dane supporters were attacked by the home fans after being allegedly provoked by the away group waving a Russian flag inside the stadium. Tension was already brewing between the pro-Russian separatists and forces deployed by the Ukrainian government following Russia’s controversial annexation of Crimea. The Danish club did not take things lightly and lodged an official complain to UEFA.
In a bid to quash similar volatile incidents in the future, UEFA confirmed that Ukrainian and Russian teams cannot be drawn together during any European tournament in the next season. The investigation could not nail down the culprits but the situation definitely highlighted the danger that supporters from any nation visiting a troubled area could be facing. It was time for UEFA to take a stern stand on how to save the beautiful game from hooligans.
Talking about the beautiful game, Dnipro subsequently lost 2-0 away and entered the play-off round of the UEFA Europa League, thus started an unforgettable journey.Pitted against the Croatian side Hajduk Split, all seemed to go downhill as Dnipro conceded early in the second half at home. However they bounced back to win the first leg 2-1 and playing out a goalless away match, qualified for the group stages of the Europa League.
The Journey Started
Europa League is notorious for its rigorous fixtures and since the games are held on Thursday nights, it gives the clubs very little time to prepare for the weekend league matches. Dnipro’s task was made even tougher as they were drawn in a group of European heavyweights such as Italian giants Internazionale and top French club AS Saint-Étienne. Champions from Azerbaijan, Qarabağ, completed the group. The journey did not seem to be easy and it turned out to be a tough one indeed with Dnipro managing a solitary point midway through the group stage. They started the last match day against Saint-Étienne desperate for a win. Even then a Qarabağ victory over Inter would have broken their hearts but thankfully, results went their way. Dnipro won by their favourite scoreline (1-0), Inter held to a goalless draw and thus the former found themselves in the knock outs.
Myron Bohdanovych Markevych took charge of Dnipro before the 2014-15 season. He had not experienced much success thus far in his professional career spanning more than 20 years but the constant rigors of club football had sharpened his game reading skills. He did not have any continental exposure but he made the most of his home conditions, something he knew like the back of his palm. He showed his true worth when it came to shutting down the defence and squeezing out that one vital goal.
The Dream Begins
Olympiacos FC, Dnipro’s opponent in the round of 32, got the first taste of his waterproof strategy. Dnipro won 2-0 at home and that proved a bit too much for the Greek team to overcome. A 2-2 away draw saw the Ukrainian side through to the round of 16, their best ever showing at the competition.
Up next were AFC Ajax, another heavyweight who, like Olympiacos FC had come through the Champions league route. Again, the result was similar – a hard fought 1-0 home win where the clean sheet proved to be vital. Ajax won the return leg 1-0 forcing extra time but Dnipro managed to score a critical away goal in the 97th minute. The Dutch side fought back and again took the lead but Dnipro scraped it through on the away goal rule.
Buoyed by these back to back giant killing efforts, Dnipro got lady luck shining on them once more as they were drawn against the weakest team alive in the quarter finals – third seeded Belgian side Club Brugge. Markevych followed his master blue print – win 1-0 at home, draw 0-0 away and Dnipro progressed to the semis.
By now it was April and Dnipro were confident with the way they were playing. A memorable season seemed to be on the cards. Most of their home matches had been played in the freezing Ukrainian weather and the away teams found it extremely difficult to adapt to playing at sub-zero temperatures. Along with their European exploits, even domestically, Dnipro had by then qualified for the semi-finals of the domestic cup competition, a tournament they had never won. Dnipro were also vying for the second spot in the league which would have given them a shot at the Champions League next year (subsequently they have tailed off a bit and find themselves in third spot, preferring to concentrate on the Europa League matches. Now a direct entry at the Europa league seems the most they can get out of it). So when Dnipro were handed their sternest test so far in the form of Italian powerhouse Napoli, Markevych and his boys had nothing to fear.
The first leg was played in Naples where Dnipro clinched a vital away goal in a 1-1 draw. It is really fascinating to note that they have scored an away goal in all but one of their knock out matches. And then came the home match in a rain soaked Kyiv. A heavy pitch definitely aided the defensive-minded Dnipro team as they needed to do what they did best – shut the door out (or as they call it, park the bus). Rafael Benítez, planning to create a record by clinching the trophy with a third club, having previously won it with Valencia in 2003-04 and Chelsea in 2012-13, had to return empty handed as Dnipro eventually won it 1-0.
A Maverick Tactician
Markevych’s philosophy is quite simple – he knows player for player his team stands no chance against teams of much higher pedigree. So he has moulded his strategy to inspire his troop to play for each other, to cover each other’s back – a war cry that epitomizes the players’ struggle in a war rift nation. Dnipro players press quite high up the pitch and attack in numbers to seize the opportunity when it arises, but more often than not they are content to let their opponents have the ball. Each and every player tries to close down the space and chase his opponents all over the pitch.
There are bound to be some heroic performances during such an epic campaign. The shot-stopper Denys Boyko has punched above his weight, especially in the semis when he denied a lethal goal scorer like Gonzalo Higuaín four times in one-on-one situations. Yevhen Seleznyov grabbed his opportunity with both hands as he got to play in the absence of injured team mate Roman Zozulya and scored in both the legs against Napoli. The Ukraine international scored late in the 80th minute at Naples, allegedly from an offside position, as he stabbed home with his first touch after coming off the bench moments earlier. A fairy-tale David vs Goliath story is never complete without these strokes of luck embedded within it.But it was more of a team effort – what Dnipro lacked in individual brilliance, they made up for in doggedness.
The War Cry
Time and again they have echoed the sentiment that their strength rests not with great men but the great many. And they are not playing for a mere trophy, as the great man Markevych has put it – “Every day our people are dying. Today all the boys fighting in the East were probably watching football, and we also played for them.” This feeling resonated throughout the team. He also added after the semi-final win – “We played for people, especially for the boys who are now taking part in anti-terror operation.”
“We played for people, especially for the boys who are now taking part in anti-terror operation.”
The players rejoiced the moment but did not let go their sense of humour. When senior defender Artem Fedetskyi was asked about his feelings after the match he stunned everyone with his cheeky comment that he has been waiting for the retirement of Gonzalo Higuaín. The Napoli forward had promised to do so if Napoli could not make it to the final before the tie and Fedetskyi was quick to remind him that “Man said – man did.”
Dnipro’s success has not gone unnoticed in the social and political sphere also. President Petro Poroshenko took to social networking to congratulate the team, hailing them as the “glory of Ukraine”. Their semi-final win has been described as “a historic victory” and “a present for the whole of Ukraine” by the national media. Dnipro’s success could again unite the nation, as happened during the Euro 2012 when Ukraine co-hosted the tournament with Poland.
Dnipro derives its name from the nation’s longest river Dnieper, which both divides and united the nation. Nothing can be more symbolic and dramatic than the upcoming final when Markevych wishes that the entire nation would stand up and cheer for his brave men. And the signs have been encouraging.
During the entire course of the campaign, FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk had to play all of their home matches some 400 kilometres away to at Kyiv due to the war. The home stadium support has been limited as the football fans from capital preferred to watch their beloved FC Dynamo Kyiv’s away games on TV rather than turning up at the field for an outsider club. But things changed after the quarterfinals as Dynamo Kyiv was knocked out and the war torn nation got united to support their only representative in the competition.
A Winner – Already
Dnipro’s success goes a long way beyond the boundaries of the football pitch. Football movement in Ukraine has played a vital part in uniting the nation and keeping the youth away from unwanted distractions. The football fans first initiated a movement to secure their cities from bandits and in doing this, became instant role models for the entire nation. The beautiful game has taught them to be tolerant and respect even the rival fans. So regardless of whether they are from Donetsk or Kyiv, Lviv or Kharkiv, fans will stand united behind Dnipro. As our friend from Ukraine puts it: “I am sure that they (the groups of football fans) did a great job for the country that most politicians could have never done. Football is much bigger than just a game, it’s a religion that unites people across different age, sex and social status”.
Amidst torrential rain, a whopping 62,344 fans watched the semi-final match and supporters of the East Ukrainian club became a bit too excited as the final whistle was blown. Jubilant fans invaded the pitch in celebration. The club now faces a disciplinary hearing for the improper conduct of their fans from UEFA on 21st May. A much bigger and tougher test awaits them though in Warsaw on 27th May when they will face the Spanish side Sevilla. After out thinking renowned European stalwarts like Benítez over two legs, it remains to be seen if Markevych can adjust to the one-off affair and mastermind a victory over Unai Emery. But, whatever happens, they have surely cemented their place in Ukrainian football folklore and will serve as a source of inspirations for the have-nots and underdogs for years to come.
This piece would not have been possible without the valuable first hand input from our friend Kirill Kukuruza. Goalden Times would like to take this opportunity to express their gratitude towards Kirill for his contributions.
Seven Points on the Match
England 1 Ukraine 0
Ukraine must have felt being let down by the match officials when they were denied a legitimate goal last night but to be honest they have only the players to blame for the early elimination from the tournament. In spite of being the better team for major part of the match, they simply didn’t take their chances that came their way. It is true that absence of Andriy Shevchenko upfront was a major loss for them but then again, you cannot count on a single player to carry you every other day.
Roy Hodgson must be a overjoyed man after his team topped Group D. At the same time, he must be knowing how much England has to improve if they want to progress beyond the next match. Hodgson’s strategy from the start of the tournament clearly has been based on a solid defensive organization. But the way his defence was shaky at times against last night specially against crosses from the wide areas must been noticed by Cesare Prandelli, he will definitely be looking to capitalize over them. Although these are early days under his coaching, but Hodgson has to take some measure to close the loop-holes in his defensive line otherwise his honeymoon period won’t last long.
Tactically speaking, Ukraine was clearly the better team though the result suggests other. At times, the barrage of Ukraine attacks clearly unsettled the English. In the midfield, it was mainly the job of Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker to supply ammunitions for the forwards. Although personally Gerrard is having a good tournament with assists in all the three games, his combination with Scott Parker was not been able to dictate the game. The English midfield was too predictable and lack of improvisation from the wide players didn’t allow them to build up a sustained pressure on the Ukraine defence, mostly aerial route became their favoured way of attack. On the otherhand, Ukraine were able to spread their game to the wings and switch the flanks regularly. Their wingers Konoplayanka and Yarmolenko proved to be handful for the English defence and were a treat to watch. Had the two strikers be more clinical, the result would have changed.
A lot was written about Wayne Rooney’s return before the match. Although his goal separated the two sides, clearly Rooney didn’t play the way he does week in week out for Manchester United. In the first half, he was a pale shadow of himself and without much support from midfield, it was difficult for him to get going. In the second half, he improved but still English fans will like to see for more of the club form that makes him such a dangerous player. He has to link up with the midfield and make others play around him, his understanding with Danny Welbeck was almost non-existant.
Ukraine people will be disappointed for their early exit from the tournament. They must have expected more specially as they are one of the host this time but they must be realistic of what to expect from their team. Given the potential available to Oleh Blokhin, it was difficult to for him to guide the team past the group stage. However, the fans must stand beside their team as the way Ukraine played a spirited football has surprised many. Except the France match, players gave their heart out and with a little bit of luck, they could have reached quarter-final stage. This team can thrive in the future, with proper injection of young talents and sticking to their football philosophy they will alight the international stage. This tournament will be remembered for Ukraine’s favourite son ‘Sheva’ as this was his swansong tournament. The way he turned back the times against Sweden will be always cherished by his fans.
Probably no English fans expected the Three- Lions to top the group at the start with some even fearing a group stage exit. So they must be elated with this showing so far and hordes of fans will be on their way to give support in the quarterfinal. Italy awaits the English there and are a different proposition to what they have faced till now. Cesare Prandelli’s side will be very difficult to beat and has wide range of options to test English resilience. Wayne Rooney has to get back to self and the rest team has to improve if they want to go past the Azzuri.
Last but not the least, goal line controversy again makes a comeback in a major international tournament that too in a England game (‘Why always them ?’), although this time English fans will be happy as they enjoyed the fruits of the wrong decision. Marko Devic’s goal clearly crossed the line entirely but goal was never given. So again the hue and cry for goal line technology arises and it is to be seen when FIFA finally gives the green light with Sepp Blatter already declaring goal-line technology now a “necessity”.
“I don’t think it’s a case of us over-performing — we’re just performing to the level we’re capable of.To do well against the teams you come up against here — 16 fantastic teams — you need to play well.”
“ England only had a few set pieces. We had lots of shots on target, but we weren’t lucky.”
French Quality Too Much for the Hosts
Ukraine 0-2 France
(Jeremy Menez 53, Yohan Cabaye 56)
France weathered a violent storm to defeat Ukraine at the Donbass Arena. Torrential downpour altered the game for almost an hour but play resumed as the fans were treated to a spectacle.
Surprisingly, Oleg Blokhin made no changes to his starting line-up. Nazarenko dropped deep to pair with Tymoshchuk in front of the defence. Voronin who was stationed behind Shevchenko had Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko on either side of him operating on the flanks. Laurent Blanc switched from the 4-3-3 formation he employed in his team’s opener against England to a more effective 4-2-3-1. In the defence, Clichy was brought in to replace Evra on the left and in attack, Nasri replaced Malouda. Nasri though was moved from his flank role against England to the middle where he orchestrated play behind Benzema.
The game began amidst the rains and the first moment of drama took place during the national anthems via a sudden clap of thunder. After five minutes, Dutch referee took the bold step to halt play when the rains had aggravated to pelting on the playing surface. The close proximity between the lightning and the thunder was enough to instigate a precautionary measure by Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers. The worst of the storm passed and in no time the waterlogged pitch was effectively drained.
Play restarted and Ukraine did just enough to assimilate France’s attacking pressure. The guileful French attackers roamed the pitch switching positions at different times. Benzema cut inside and had a pop from distance to test Pyatov who comfortably palmed the ball away. Both teams continually found a lot of space on the counter. On 15 minutes, Benzema did well to get in between the two centre-backs and knocked the ball back with a header but no team mate made a run towards the ball. A minute later, Menez got on the end of a delightful pass from Samir Nasri and wasted no time in slotting the ball at the back of the net. The linesman’s flag came to Ukraine’s rescue as the goal was ruled offside. A motivated Ukraine kept France at bay with a series of strong challenges. The Ukraine defence being mean to Benzema in particular. On 26 minutes, Ribery robbed Nazarenko of the ball but his pull-back to Menez was laid to waste by the Paris Saint-Germain attacker. Tymoshchuk’s misguided pass in the 28th minute found Ribery who burst down the left. His intercepted cross for Benzema fell straight to Menez but the goalkeeper made a brave block to keep the score level. Talisman Shevchenko had his chance in the 33rd minute. His shot from an angle did little to disturb Hugo Lloris. Minutes later, an intervention by Phillipe Mexes spared Benzema’s blushes. Mexes’ header forced an excellent save from Pyatov before the break.
Oleg Blokhin made half-time changes to his team, Marko Devic replacing Andriy Voronin. France started the second half strongly and a couple of last-ditch interceptions prevented them from going in front. Shevchenko’s powerful shot missed the target by inches as the Ukranians delivered a threat from a counter-attack. France took the lead through Menez on the 53rd minute. Benzema’s pass to him was expertly controlled before firing a low shot into the bottom right corner of the post. End-to-end stuff ensued as a result. The Ukrainians came out to find an equaliser but they were punished as Les Blues got a second goal from Yohan Cabaye. Benzema again was the provider, He dazzled away from his marker to thread a ball into the path of Cabaye whose shot whistled past the helpless Pyatov. The goal demotivated the Ukrainians and France became in total control. Cabaye hit the post amongst a flurry of chances for France but the scoreline stayed 2-0. The full-time whistle was accompanied by a chorus of boos from supporters of the home side.
POST MATCH THOUGHTS
The result leaves Ukraine with three points, one short of England and France who top the group meaning they can still qualify mathematically. It’s an extremely unlikely scenario though for the reason that they face a more superior England side in the final group game. Oleg Blokhin’s side need to play through Shevchenko more often if they are to have any chance of qualifying. They also need to work on their finishing seeing that they wasted a lot of chances in this one. They only had a shot on target out of nine tries. France on the other hand will be brimming with confidence after a dominant display. Laurent Blanc’s change from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 proved effective so he is expected to stick with that in subsequent matches. Alou Diarra once again bossed the midfield was and was a rock in front of the defence. He started in France’s first game due to injury to Yann M’Vila but now he is close to indispensable. Expect Laurent Blanc to preserve faith in him. France face Sweden in their last group game, a win which is very feasible as the Swedes are the whipping boys of the group with no points to their name.
“I warned the lads that the match against Sweden meant little. Some of the players were thinking they were already in the quarter-finals.” – Ukraine Manager, Oleg Blokhin on Ukraine’s loss.
“Ménez has a quality that none of Ribéry, Nasri, Hatem Ben Arfa or Mathieu Valbuena truly possess. He has the speed and the power to run in behind and hurt defences. That’s a rare quality.”- France Manager, Laurent Blanc showering praises on Menez.
The last match in the first round of matches was a simmering affair. It started cagily but developed into a pulsating contest. Ukrainian manager Oleg Blokhin pulled off a tactical masterstroke with his starting line-up by playing the veteran Andriy Shevchenko in place of the in-form Marko Devic who was billed to start by all experts. It was an inspired selection which decided the course of the match. As expected Ukraine started with a 4-1-3-2 formation with Shevchenko and Voronin in attack. Sweden started with the 4-2-3-1 formation with Ibrahimovic playing in the hole behind the lone striker Rosenberg. The Swedes who were unbeaten in their last five matches came up against a team which was inspired by the support of the partisan 65,000 supporters who had gathered at the Olympic Stadium in Kyiv. The match was decided in a pivotal ten minutes early in the second half.
The start of the game was cautious from both sides who knew that a win would put them on top of the group. Sweden started brighter with an Ibrahimovic cross being palmed by the opposition goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov in the opening five minutes. The match was quite combative with 16 fouls in the opening 15 minutes. Ukraine then took control of possession with Husev the left back linking up into the mid-field with Tymoshchuk and finding a lot of joy in the wings especially on the left through Yevhen Konoplyanka. The battle between the two veterans Olaf Mellberg and Andriy Shevchenko was captivating contest. The first clear chance fell to Shevchenko in the 23rd minute through a counterattack from the right where he exchanged passes with Yarmalenko and was in a one-on-one situation against Andreas Isaksson the Swedish goalkeeper. Shevchenko pulled his shot wide of the far post. In the opposite end Rosenberg made Pyatov scramble with a shot from outside the area in the 31st. Ukraine enjoyed long spells of sustained possession but could not find that opening with the Scandinavian defence holding strong. In the 35th minute Andriy Vorinin took a fierce pile driver from 25 yards which was parried by Isaksson. The hosts came close again on the 37th minute with Shevchenko hit a shot from the left of the box which was blocked and the rebound feel to his head which is crossed into the path of Yarmalenko whose shot was on target but valiantly blocked by a diving Andreas Granqvist. The best chance of the half fell to Ibrahimovic in the 39th minute. A cross from Lustic from the left found Ibrahimovic unmarked with ample time and he placed his header against the outside of the far post with the Ukrainian keeper completely beaten.
Ukraine continued having more possession in the starting of the second half. However Sweden looked more threatening in attack and Rosenberg shot in the 49th minute was on target and was blocked superbly by Yehven Selin the Ukrainian right back. The Swedes went ahead in the 52nd minute a long cross from the left was put back in the penalty area by Kim Kallstrom to an unmarked Ibrahimovic to stab in from close to silence the majority of the stadium. The lead lasted for only 3 minutes as Husev burst down the right and passed to Yarmalenko who crossed with his left foot and that man Shevchenko jumped ahead of his marker Mellberg to head in the equaliser. The stadium had erupted and the Ukrainians buoyed by the support went forward menacingly and Gusev shot over from outside the box in the 59th minute. The Ukrainians got a corner in the 62nd minute and Konoplyanka took it from the left. Shevchenko managed to get rid of his marker Ibrahimovic and flicked the ball with his head at the near post. The ball went in past a very small gap between the post and Lustig the Swedish defender who was guarding it. The legend had turned the match on its head in a matter of 10 minutes. The Swedes re-organised by bringing on the veteran Anders Svensson in place of Toivonen. Svensson shored up the mid-field allowing Rasmus Elm to go forward to support the attackers. Sweden brought on Christian Wilhelmsson the more attack minded winger in place of Seb Larrson in the 68th minute. Wilhelmsson nearly found Elm with a long pass from the left. Joham Elmander just back from his broken meta-tarsal was sent in by the Swedes in the 71st minute looking for an equaliser. Shevchenko and Voronin were both withdrawn as Blokhin tried to bring in fresher legs to his teams cause. Sweden nearly found the equaliser in the 90th minute when Elamander exchanged passes with Ibrahamovic a lofted return pass sent him clear but he blasted the ball over with the goal at his mercy. A fully match fit Elmander may have scored from a similar chance. In the last minute of added time Olaf Mellberg found himself in the opposition penalty box but his volley with outstretched foot sailed over the goal.
It was expected that the in-form Swedish team would easily get past the hosts who had lost their last two matches and were low on confidence. However, Ukraine was the better side and dominated the game for long periods of time with sustained possession and more attempts on goal. Oleg Blokhin has proved to be a master tactician by starting his veteran striker allowing him to gain confidence from the partisan support. They will go into their match against France with a lot of belief and the knowledge that a win will ensure qualification to the quarter-finals. Sweden will have to re-think their strategy and shore up the mid-field which was outplayed by the Ukrainians. It will be better if they started with Svesson instead of Toivonen allowing Elm to play in the advanced role. The fitness of Elmander will also be crucial to their fortunes. They need to get a result against England who managed to draw against a better French side. The Swedes do not want to go into the last match against France looking for a victory which looks unlikely looking at the first round of matches.
Sweden :Andreas Isaksson, Mikael Lustig, Olaf Mellberg, Andreas Granqvist, Martin Olsson, Rasmus Elm, Kim Kallstrom, Sebastian Larsson (Christian Wilhelmsson,68), Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ola Toivonen (Anders Svensson,62), Markus Rosenberg (Johan Elmander,71)
Referee: Cüneyt Çakır (Turkey)
Venue: Olympic Stadium
“All the players, the staff and the stadium were with us. That’s why we won today – we were one family.” Anatoliy Tymoshchuk- on the team spirit of Ukraine.
“It’s tough, it’s tough. We shouldn’t have lost. We had good chances to score goals. We were winning 1-0, then they scored to make it 1-1 and another to make it 2-1 from a corner and that just can’t happen. But we have two games left to do better.” Zlatan Ibrahamovic – on his teams loss.
Hometown boys look for a bright start against Scandinavian Giants
Group D: Ukraine vs. Sweden
Monday, 11 June 2012
21:45 (local time); 14:45(EST); 00:15(IST)
Olympic Stadium, Kyiv
The second host team Ukraine take the field against Sweden in the last of the first round matches in the group phase. The Olympic Stadium in Kyiv has undergone a major reconstruction and rebuilding including a new pitch which was unveiled in October 2011.
The hosts have not won this tournament since 1984 and Ukraine will try to reverse this trend. They are the lowest ranked team in the group. The next two matches are against arguably the better two teams France and England make this match the key to the fortunes of Ukraine.
Sweden is always a major fixture in all major tournament finals without being counted amongst the favourites. The team is made up of a solid group of players with some very famous stars and some workhorses who plied their trade in the different leagues of Europe. Looking into England’s problems they should be favourites to progress from this group after France. However this match against the hosts will be crucial to their chances.
Ukraine is the only debutant team in this edition of the tournament. Although, the 1988 Soviet team had a very strong Ukrainian contingent this is their first official Euro. Being hosts Ukraine did not have to qualify for the tournament and they lost their last two friendlies against Austria and Turkey both of whom have not qualified for this tournament. The manager Oleg Blokhin recently revealed that the poor form was due a chronic bout of food-poisoning which affected the whole team.
Sweden made has been a regular in this tournament since 1992 when lost in the semi-finals. In the last edition they were eliminated in the group stage by the champions Spain and Russia. Sweden qualified automatically as the best second place qualifier behind Netherlands. They scored the third most number of goals amongst the 16 qualifiers with 31 behind Netherlands and Germany. The Swedes have been impressive in the warm-up friendly matches and are still unbeaten in 2012.
Teams & Formations
Ukraine team is centred around their captain Anatoliy Tymoshchuk of Bayern Munich. He is the vital cog which makes the Ukrainian team function. Other key members in attack and defence will be Andriy Voronin of Dynamo Moscow and Oleg Husyev of Dynamo Kyiv. Oleg Blokhin will probably start with two forwards in a 4-1-3-2 formation looking for a win. Andriy Shevchenko the legendary striker should be seen as a second half substitute.
Sweden will look to their star Zlatan Ibrahamovic for inspirational play in the opposition penalty box. Ibrahimovic will play in the hole below the main striker giving him the flexibility of creating chances and scoring himself. Johan Elmander the first choice striker who has just returned to training after a foot fracture will probably not be in the starting line-up. Erik Hamrén will start with a 4-2-3-1 formation which will look to take control of the midfield.
Sweden (4-2-3-1) Andreas Isaksson; Mikael Lustig; Olaf Mellberg; Andreas Granqvist; Martin Olsson; Rasmus Elm; Kim Kallstrom; Sebastian Larsson; Zlatan Ibrahimovic; Ola Toivonen; Markus Rosenberg
Manager: Erik Hamrén
“Sweden as a team work very well, they’ve been together for a long time and they’re a machine that runs very smoothly”
Oleg Blokhin- Ukraine Manager
“I don’t have any problems sleeping but I dream a lot, and when I do, I dream about winning”
Erik Hamrén-Sweden Manager
Home Team Decisions
Eoghan McMonagle, brings up the tidbits of the two host nations of upcoming Euro 2012.
So the UEFA European Championship 2012 is fast approaching and it promises to be a very interesting competition. The favourites are well-known, with reigning champions Spain and a very strong Germany being mentioned along with perennial contenders Holland. Into that mix are thrown teams like Italy, England and France who may have fallen on hard times over the last few years but still have the players and the tradition to go all the way. But what of the joint-hosts, Poland and Ukraine? Are they there to simply make up the numbers or can (at least) either of these teams use home advantage to mount an unexpected challenge?
Poland have the honour of kicking-off the tournament when they face Greece on June 8th. So I shall start by looking at them. Drawn in Group A alongside Russia, the Czech Republic and the aforementioned Greece, they might just fancy their chances of making it to the quarter-finals. None of these teams are among the front line contenders for the title and this promises to be a very closely contested group.
Russia will be favourites to advance. They are, according to the latest FIFA rankings, the highest ranked team of the four and quite comfortably surpassed Ireland in the qualification group to top it. The Czech Republic are not quite the force they once were, having struggled in their qualification group but managed to clinch a play-off spot and dispatched Montenegro easily to reach the final tournament. The Greeks, however, will be very hard to beat and were highly impressive in qualifying – topping a group containing Croatia, that too remaining unbeaten.
As hosts, Poland did not have the rigours of a qualifying campaign to go through, being automatically seeded in Group A. They might have struggled to make it through as in the qualification campaign for the 2010 World Cup, Poland were truly awful. They finished 5th out of 6 teams with only lowly San Marino behind and Slovenia, Slovakia, the Czechs and even Northern Ireland ahead of them. Not exactly inspiring stuff! It begs the question as to whether Poland would actually have made it to Euro 2012 if they had had to qualify for it – the answer is probably not.
So can they turn their form of the last few years around and actually be competitive in front of their own people this summer? It will be interesting to find out – certainly the benefits of playing in front of a home crowd should lift a team, especially with the passionate support the Polish fans are known for. However, lack of competitive football during the qualification campaign for Euro 2012 may put Poland at a disadvantage. No amount of friendly matches can come close to the white-hot intensity of qualification for, or playing in, a major international tournament.
Much will depend on how Poland start the tournament – a result against Greece with the eyes of the footballing world on them in the first game will raise their confidence and really get the fans behind them. A point against Russia in the next game after 4 days would then put them in good shape for the final group game against the Czechs on June 16th. A tough ask but not impossible. Given how tight I expect this group to be one win may be good enough to go through. Poland’s recent record may not be particularly impressive but this is a new start and it’s a chance they might just take. In summary then, the Poles are a good outside bet to make it to the quarter-finals but there, I think, the adventure will end against the mighty Germany, Netherlands or Portugal.
So how about the Ukraine? They are still relative newcomers to international tournaments having only ever qualified for one – the 2006 World Cup. Their performance there was encouraging as they made it to the quarter-finals before being beaten by eventual champions, Italy. However, since then there has been very little progress – Ukraine failed to qualify for Euro 2008 and lost out to Greece in a play-off to get to the 2010 World Cup. The “”Golden Generation” of the early to mid 2000’s, drawn from the excellent Dynamo Kiev team of the same period, never really fulfilled its potential – can the class of 2012 fare any better?
As joint hosts, Ukraine will have the same advantages and disadvantages as those mentioned above for Poland. The passionate and numerous local supporters may go some way to offsetting the lack of match sharpness due to the absence of competitive football over the qualifying campaign. I fear for Ukraine however, that they have some extra issues to deal with, chief among which is the quality of the group in which they find themselves in. Ukraine begin their campaign against Sweden on June 11th, they then face France before finishing the group against England on June 19th.
That is a really tough series of games – the Swedes nearly always perform well at international level and often punch above their weight. They are a seasoned and well balanced team and have the unpredictable, but potentially brilliant, Zlatan Ibrahimović up front. The Swedes came second to the Netherlands in their qualification group but actually managed to beat the highly fancied Dutch in their final group game. France have been through a couple of bad years at international level having gone out at the group stages of both Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup but topped their qualification group for Euro 2012, losing only one game in the process. There is a growing sense that France have straightened themselves out and with players like Karim Benzema and Franck Ribéry they could go a long way at Euro 2012. England always seem to be less than the sum of their parts and this is, I believe, a fairly weak England squad. That said, they still possess some excellent players and it is unfortunate for Ukraine that the only game of the group stages which Wayne Rooney will be eligible for is the final game against them (Rooney is suspended for England’s first two matches).
So how do Ukraine compete with these heavyweights? The short answer, from my point of view at least is, they can’t. I don’t see the quality in their squad to sustain a challenge in Group D. The team is almost exclusively based in the Ukrainian league, which I do not believe is providing the highest standard of football at the moment. The fact that they still rely so heavily on the 35 year old Andriy Shevchenko in attack is a serious concern. I hope for Ukraine’s sake that they can raise their game and give a good account of themselves come June – but it will be very difficult for them and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them come bottom of the group.
Being the hosts of a major tournament can and should provide a major boost to the chances of the home nations – but only if they have sufficient quality to take advantage. It would be good for the tournament as a whole if one or both of the host nations can do well – Poland may just have enough to emerge from their group but I think Ukraine are seriously up against it.
Poland: 2nd in Group A behind Greece, eliminated in quarter-finals.