"Four teams are still in contention to qualify for the FIFA World Cup directly or through the play-offs," said Ukraine coach Mikhail Fomenko as he looked forward to Friday's Group H meeting with Poland in Kharkiv. "So we have another crucial game, this time against Poland. We cannot drop points – we need to win."
In effect, not much has changed since the 65-year-old took charge of Ukraine in December 2012, with his side having claimed just two points from their opening three qualifiers. His competitive tenure kicked off with a must-win game in Poland in March and – with Montenegro and England also challenging for the top spots – the pressure has yet to slacken. "In this campaign every match has been like a final for us," Fomenko explained.
That so little has changed for Poland in the intervening months is a massive credit to the coach, who led the team to a 3-1 victory in Warsaw to set the UEFA EURO 2012 co-hosts on the comeback trail. He kept the momentum going with notable results including a 4-0 triumph away to upstarts Montenegro and a 0-0 home draw with England. However, even wins this week against Poland and then San Marino on 15 October might not be enough to secure first position or – subject to results elsewhere – second.
Simply being in the hunt may represent success of sorts for Ukraine, yet it remains sudden death for each of the section's top four. One false move and it could all be over, with England leading Ukraine and Montenegro by a point, with the Poles two further back. "Friday's match is a last chance for us," Poland coach Waldemar Fornalik said. "Everybody remembers our disappointing result against Ukraine. They were in the same situation we are now and they won. Now we have to take revenge. Winning is the most important thing for us."
Desperate times call for extreme measures. Poland will be without injured Borussia Dortmund defender Łukasz Piszczek, so for the first time in four years have called up 34-year-old Mariusz Lewandowski, a midfielder based in Ukraine with PFC Sevastopol. "He plays in Ukraine and knows their players well, which gives us an advantage," said Fornalik.
That insider knowledge may be of some value against a Ukraine outfit at pretty much full strength, despite Denys Garmash's long-term absence. Fomenko recognises that the visitors to Kharkiv are desperate men, but knows how much a win could be worth for his side; indeed, they would go top if a victory over Poland coincided with pacesetters England dropping points against Montenegro at Wembley.
"We know our opponents are very angry after that home defeat," said Fomenko. "They have a chance for revenge and will try to use it. Our lads know that, yet they need no extra motivation. It will be tough but so will the other fixture – England against Montenegro."