It will be a summer to remember for Ukraine. In June the national side travel to Germany to play in the FIFA World Cup finals for the first time. Before then the Under-21s will savour their first major tournament here in Portugal.
Captain Artem Milevskiy's dramatic goal three minutes into added time against Belgium booked Ukraine's place in Portugal, and now Oleksiy Mykhaylychenko's side are looking to take full advantage. "The lineup of this championship is very strong, but we have every chance of succeeding," Milevskiy said. "We have an experienced team which plays with great cohesion. We've come through a lot of tests together."
None more so than against Belgium when Ukraine battled back from a 3-2 defeat in the home leg of their play-off to qualify 5-4 on aggregate. That success underlined Ukraine's strength of character, honed over many years. Most of the current squad were born in 1985 and have matured together as a side, playing in the 2002 UEFA European Under-17 Championship, the Under-19 version two years after that and the FIFA World Youth Championship last season. Ukraine can draw on experience off the pitch as well. They may be at the U21 final tournament for the first time as a nation, but Ukrainian players and coaches have been here before.
During the Soviet era, Ukrainians did not just play in the major youth tournaments, they regularly won them. The USSR side that triumphed in this competition in 1980 comprised seven Ukrainians, including current assistant coach Andriy Bal and FC Dynamo Kyiv coach Anatoli Demianenko. Five Ukrainians played for the Soviet U21 title-winning side of 1990. Now another young and talented generation, led by Olexandr Aliyev and Milevskiy, is hoping to match that feat - only this time in the blue and yellow of Ukraine.
Aliyev, on loan at FC Metalurh Zaporizhya from Dynamo, is the side's leading scorer with seven goals, equalling the record held by Serhiy Rebrov. Dynamo striker Milevskiy has already played a record 25 times for his country. "We will be hoping to make it out of our group," Aliyev says, looking forward to Group B games against Italy, Denmark and the Netherlands. "I have a lot to prove, because I want to play in the senior national team."
It is a busy period to be on the Ukrainian coaching staff with the World Cup looming. But Bal, Oleh Blokhin's assistant for the senior side, is keeping a close eye on the U21s. He stressed how important the final tournament can be for the country's rising stars. "For us, the victory in the 1980 tournament was a ticket to top level football," he said. "Many of the players in that team went on to make a name for themselves in senior football. I hope the new generation of Ukrainian players will succeed as well."
Bal knows just what it takes to succeed. During the course of a glorious career he won three Soviet titles, four Soviet Cups and the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup in 1986 with Dynamo, as well as that U21 title in 1980. Ukraine may be competing in this championship for the first time, but they still have a tough act to follow.
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