Ukraine coach Oleh Blokhin insists his side are "on the right track" ahead of the UEFA EURO 2012 finals they co-host this summer, telling UEFA.com: "I have no doubt we will present a competitive team at the tournament."
As the tactician who masterminded his country's greatest footballing achievement to date, Blokhin knows a good national team when he sees one. The 59-year-old was in charge when Ukraine reached the 2006 FIFA World Cup quarter-finals and, after returning to the helm in April 2011, has overseen a transition that culminated in a 3-3 draw with Germany and a 2-1 victory against Austria in November.
"The Germany game was our most memorable match of 2011 because we managed to score three goals against one of the best teams in the world at the renovated EURO final venue," Blokhin told UEFA.com. "It showed we are on the right track, and I have no doubt we will present a competitive team at the tournament."
It has been a marked transformation for next summer's co-hosts, who had been through two coaches in the six months since Oleksiy Mykhaylychenko departed, following his side's failure to qualify for the World Cup in South Africa. In the interim, Myron Markevych had guided Ukraine to three wins and a draw with the Netherlands before relinquishing the reins to focus on his responsibilities at FC Metalist Kharkiv. Yuriy Kalitvintsev then managed one victory in eight games before making way for Blokhin.
It was not a flying start for the returning Blokhin, however. After an initial 2-0 success against Uzbekistan, Ukraine achieved an unwanted record of four successive losses. But the 1975 Ballon d'Or winner refused to give in and managed to turn results in his favour, the last four fixtures producing three victories and that draw with Germany in the Olympic Stadium's inaugural match.
"We fulfilled our main objective for 2011: we issued the message that no one will be guaranteed a place at EURO 2012.
The players need to prove they are worthy of the blue and yellow shirt every time they play. I only want players in my team who consider it an honour to play for Ukraine. It was a difficult year because we had to assess a great number of candidates in the six-month period. But now I think we have decided on the backbone of the team, although that doesn't mean we have stopped selecting new players."
Speaking ahead of the finals draw at Kyiv's Palace of Arts, Blokhin insisted he had no preferences in terms of potential group opponents. "It doesn't matter who we get," he said. "This is the EURO finals. There are no easy groups here. Half of the teams in the draw rank among the best ten teams in the world, but we are the hosts; that's why we are just focusing on reaching the knockout stage. Then we'll see." When his side were drawn to face England, France and Sweden in Group D, a rare smile passed across Blokhin's lips. "See what I mean?" he said. "Our goal remains unchanged, though."
In the lead-up to the finals, the Synyo-Zhovti will play three friendlies against Israel on 29 February, Austria on 1 June and Estonia on 5 June. "After the Ukrainian Premier League finishes all our players will get a week off," added Blokhin. "Then we'll have training camps in Turkey and Austria and will return to Kyiv just before the start of the finals.
This tournament is very special for me as I never played at a European Championship, so I want to catch up as a coach. We will do our best to please our fans. I hope UEFA EURO 2012 will be remembered in Ukraine not just for the fantastic developments in our sport and in the general infrastructure, but also for the successful performance of our national team."
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