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The Netherlands were chastened by defeat by Ukraine in their opening game at the UEFA European Under-21 Championship – but go into Sunday's rematch in the final with a historical precedent in their favour.
Goals from Artem Milevskiy and Ruslan Fomin gave Ukraine a surprise 2-1 victory against Foppe de Haan's Jong Oranje in both countries' first Group B fixture. That result, though, may not be the best indicator as to the outcome at the Estádio do Bessa Século XXI. Eighteen years ago, a Soviet Union team featuring a number of Ukrainians including a certain Olexiy Mykhaylychenko had beaten the Netherlands in their curtain-raiser at the UEFA European Championship, yet succumbed in the sequel, the Dutch triumphing 2-0. Netherlands captain Stijn Schaars hopes to follow suit. "I was four in 1988 but have seen it all on television," he said. "Everyone remembers Marco van Basten's goal and everything about the game. You can make a comparison but first we have to win the match."
Turning the tide
However, the gauge for De Haan is the more recent past. "We know Ukraine can beat us and we know we'll have to play well. They were better than we thought so they've warned us and on Sunday we'll have to play better. A week ago we talked about expectations being high but the team didn't play as well as expected. A week later, though, you can't define the team spirit – it has grown." The Netherlands' tournament was turned around by Daniël de Ridder's decisive late goal against Italy which sent them through to the semi-finals, behind group winners Ukraine and at the Italians' expense. Then, against heavily-favoured France, Dutch courage came to the fore as the agony of conceding an 85th-minute equaliser gave way to the ecstasy of extra-time victory. "When you have the right spirit, you can deal with disappointments like France's second goal," De Haan added.
One worry for the coach is holding midfielder Demy de Zeeuw's fitness. Centre-back Gijs Luirink filled in during the second half on Thursday, with Ramon Zomer being brought into the back line. "We have a problem with Demy who has a groin injury. I think Demy will be fit although we'll have to look after him. We are in good shape, and we want to play football and win. It will be a difficult game but we are confident." Ukraine have also had a cloud on the horizon. Striker Artem Milevskiy took a blow to the left side of his body which forced him out of the semi-final against Serbia and Montenegro. He participated in Saturday's training session, with coach Mykhaylychenko expecting his two-goal starlet to be available. "All the players are in shape," he said.
For Mykhaylychenko, the final "will be a different match from the first game so we have prepared differently and I will change the tactics." A similar scoreline – and a third tournament win following the victories against the Netherlands and Denmark that brought the debutants to prominence - would do nicely. "It is incredible to be in the final, in our first Under-21 finals, and we have a good chance," he said. "There are no favourites, it is 50-50, and small things - psychologicial, mental or tactical - will make the difference." Which is where this canny operator will come into play. The veteran of the 1988 European Championship might yet claim victory for his country – while doing justice to his old mentor, USSR's coach of the day, Valeriy Lobanovskiy. "What happened in 1988 is the history of me and my team-mates, but I don't want to make any mistakes this time," Mykhaylychenko stressed. "We all learned from Lobanovskiy. He helped me to have a better understanding of the game, but this team is playing my football." The Netherlands beware.
• UEFA has provisionally suspended Ukraine defender Dmytro Nevmyvaka with immediate effect from all UEFA competition matches following the positive result of a doping control test he underwent after the game against Serbia and Montenegro on 1 June. UEFA's Control and Disciplinary Body will deal with the case at its next meeting on 25 June. An appeal may be lodged against the decision by midnight on 6 June.
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