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Though Ukraine have been drawn in a group containing three previous winners of the UEFA European Under-21 Championship, Pavlo Yakovenko is confident the psychological strength of his squad will stand them in good stead come the summer in Denmark.
Such mental fortitude was in evidence in the deciding instalment of the play-off against the Netherlands in November, when, leading 3-1 from the away leg, Ukraine had their advantage extinguished in the early stages of the second half. With nerves jangling and their place at the finals in jeopardy, the hosts regained their composure and dug deep to eliminate the country they lost to in the 2006 showpiece in Porto.
"The guys are mentally driven," said Yakovenko, who is preparing his squad to face Spain, England – runners-up two years ago – and the Czech Republic in Group B. "We were not able to play with a settled team during qualifying. We used a large number of players and there were changes made for each game due to injuries and suspensions. The players that were on the pitch did a good job and were mentally strong."
The U21s' achievement in reaching the finals is another indicator of the growing strength of Ukrainian football. Two years ago the U19s were crowned European champions on home soil, two months after Shakhtar won the last edition of the UEFA Cup. This season, with help from U21 players Yaroslav Rakitskiy and Taras Stepanenko, the Pitmen qualified for the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League for the first time, while three clubs – FC Dynamo Kyiv, FC Metalist Kharkiv and FC Karpaty Lviv – were in the UEFA Europa League group stage.
As for Ukraine's prospects of emulating the U19s, Yakovenko is certainly not downplaying their chances. "I expect that we will play to win, as always, and that we will succeed," said the 46-year-old, whose team continue their build-up for the finals with a friendly against Switzerland on 9 February. "I'm not sure that we will win [the championship], but we want it and so we will aim for it."
Yakovenko spent the bulk of his playing career at Dynamo under coach Valeriy Lobanovskiy, winning the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup in 1986. Working with such a luminary of Ukrainian football, says Yakovenko, played a key role in shaping his coaching philosophy.
"I learned a lot from him," he explained. "When I was working with the club it was according to the Lobanovskiy system. I added a lot of elements of my own, so it is not a carbon copy, but the foundation is his system, including the discipline."
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