The Ukraine squad flew into Kyiv Borispol Airport this morning and were welcomed on their return by cloudless skies, sunshine and temperatures in the high 20s.
The only possible dampener on the mood came from the results of the last two warm-up matches. The defeats by Austria (3-2) and Turkey (2-0) will not have pleased Ukraine fans but there was a good explanation for both. For the Austria match, Oleh Blokhin and his coaching staff decided to try out both substitute keepers and it was apparent in the second half that the tough training schedule had left the team looking heavy-legged.
On the day of the match against Turkey, meanwhile, ten players went down with food poisoning. Blokhin thought about cancelling the game but in the end it went ahead with a very unusual starting XI from Ukraine. The players' lack of speed – usually one of their strengths – was evident and a fresher-looking Turkey team were quick to exploit the holes in the Synyo-Zhovti defence.
My view is that it is too early to write off the co-hosts even if Sweden, France and England currently appear as big a barrier as the Great Wall of China. Drawing comparisons with Blokhin's squad that made it to the last eight at the 2006 FIFA World Cup, local experts say there is a different game plan today. Six years ago the Ukraine team based their success on a disciplined defence and fast counterattacks with two clinical finishers, Serhiy Rebrov and Andriy Shevchenko, ready to punish opponents for even the slightest mistake.
Today's squad, unfortunately, lacks a forward threat like that. In fact, of the five forwards in the 2012 vintage, none finished this season as the top scorer for his club. Yevhen Seleznyov came closest – he was joint-top marksman of the Ukrainian Premier League but his team-mate Luiz Adriano outscored him across all competitions.
Moreover, the FC Shakhtar Donestk forward has still to prove he is able to upset opposition keepers regularly at the top level. Shevchenko is still around but his succession of injuries in recent seasons make me wonder if he is able to last the 90 minutes of every match. Of the forwards, they are considered as better support strikers than operating as the main man.
The defensive line, meanwhile, is weakened by the injury-caused absence of the two main keepers and there are worries too over the temperament of the two young centre-backs, Yaroslav Rakitskiy and Yevhen Khacheridi – both are renowned for picking up unnecessary yellow and red cards. On the other hand, Blokhin's midfield line looks strong with wingers Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka having enjoyed fine seasons and the likes of Anatoliy Tymoshchuk and Serhiy Nazarenko adding international experience.
To sum up, I am expecting an attacking approach from the Ukraine team and have no doubt that, whatever the result, they will put on a show worth seeing.
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