Ukraine's slim hopes of qualifying for UEFA EURO 2004™ were all but ended by a goalless draw at home to Northern Ireland,
The result left Ukraine in third place in Group 6 with ten points from seven games, five adrift of group leaders Greece and one behind second-placed Spain, who they must beat in Elche in their final qualifier on Wednesday to have any hope of securing second position and a place in the play-offs.
Northern Ireland, meanwhile – who have now gone 1,062 minutes since their last international goal – remained bottom of the group with three points from six matches yet this was another encouraging display.
Taylor in form
Ukraine, who were without the injured AC Milan striker Andriy Shevchenko, were in control for much of the match but were unable to turn their dominance into goals, while Maik Taylor was in fine form in the Northern Ireland goal.
In front of a vociferous home crowd, Ukraine created several chances, with Andriy Voronin coming the closest to breaking the deadlock moments before half-time as his low right-foot shot beat Taylor only to strike the right-hand post and rebound to safety. Serhiy Rebrov, Gennadiy Zubov and Oleg Gusev also tested the visitors' defence in the first 45 minutes as the home side strove for a vital breakthrough.
In the second period, Taylor produced a fine reflex save to save a long-range effort from Anatoliy Tymoschuk and a spectacular save to keep out Andriy Vorobei's fine strike as Ukraine threw men forward. Substitute Olexandr Melashchenko almost scored what would have been the winning goal in stoppage time, but instead headed wide from close range.
"I'm very disappointed," said Ukraine coach Leonid Buryak. "We wanted to win so badly that we tried too hard. Our chances of qualifying look miserable now, but as long as they are still there we should fight. Shevchenko will probably be available for our last game in Spain. In this campaign, we have had to overcome too many setbacks - we haven't played a single match with our first-choice squad."
His Northern Ireland counterpart, Sammy McIlroy, said: "There are very many young faces in our squad and they passed a very serious test. I'm even more delighted than when we drew with Spain. With a young team, I believe that we can be more competitive in the near future."