Unravelling the enigma of football in the post-Soviet republics
Stuart Pearce was perhaps correct in his assumption that Ukraine “are probably under a touch more pressure” than England after Pavlo Yakovenko’s side lost their opening game of the Euro 2011 finals against the Czech Republic on Sunday.
If Ukraine are to have any hope of progressing from Group B they need to take something from tonight’s game; lose, and they are out of the tournament.
Ukraine go into the match without influential captain Taras Stepanenko, who suffered a muscle tear 10 minutes into the second half of that 2-1 defeat. The injury will sideline him for the rest of the tournament.
The 21-year-old Shakhtar Donetsk holding midfielder had only just returned from a groin injury he sustained towards the end of the season, and on the eve of the finals Yakovenko had spoken of what a huge blow Stepanenko’s absence would have been.
Temur Partsvaniya replaced him on Sunday, but Yakovenko may decide to start with Partsvaniya’s Dynamo Kyiv team-mate Denys Garmash, one of the members of that Ukrainian Under-19 team that beat England in the 2009 European Championship final alongside Volodymyr Chesnako in the centre of midfield in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Even without Stepanenko skippering the side though, there's still plenty of experience for Ukraine to call upon. Yakovenko’s squad contains seven senior internationals, six of whom began against the Czechs, and their tough-tackling centre-back Yaroslav Rakitskiywill be key.
Equally as capable a leader as Stepanenko, Rakitskiy was an integral part of Mircea Lucescu’s side that completed a league and cup double in Ukraine as well as reaching the Champions League quarter-finals, and the 21-year-old has blossomed into a fine defender alongside Dmytro Chygrynskiy.
English fans will already be familiar with him; less so Shakhtar’s Bohdan Butko, whose pace will cause problems from right-back. The 20-year-old came on leaps and bounds during a loan spell at Volyn Lutsk and were it not for having such a talented player as Darijo Srna ahead of him, Butko would surely be involved more with first-team affairs at Shakhtar.
Juande Ramos was reported to have expressed an interest in taking him to Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, yet Lucescu has sent the youngster out for another season-long loan at Illychivets Mariupil to aid his development.
After that opening game defeat Yakovenko hinted at tweaking his starting line-up, and one change will surely be recalling left-back Yevhen Selin, who missed Sunday’s match through illness; certainly Ukraine looked susceptible down that flank.
Yakovenko is an astute coach and what we can say about this team is that while the one constant will be that lone central striker, in midfield there’s fluidity and movement and they are able to adapt depending on the circumstances. This versatility, which can see the formation evolve into a 4-3-3 with the two wide players supporting the centre-forward, is perhaps one of Ukraine’s greatest strengths.
Andriy Yarmolenko on the left of that midfield will be another face recognisable to England supporters after impressing against Manchester City in the Europa League for Dynamo – he’s also had a fine season domestically – but the real talent and creative spark in this team is Yevhen Konoplyanka.
Versatile, technically proficient and a superb dribbler, Konoplyanka is the great hope for Ukrainian football. The 21-year-old playmaker was key for Ramos at Dnipro, who valued him at €50m earlier in the year and even at such a young age his absence is felt by the team when he is missing.
Konoplyanka started the game against the Czechs behind lone striker Roman Zozulya, but drifted out wide left or deep to pick up the ball and England will need to keep an eye on him tonight. He’s right-footed, but is a menace cutting inside from the left and firing off long-range efforts at goal.
Another of those changes Yakovenko spoke of may very well be Maxym Biliy starting on the right ahead of Mykola Morozyuk who came on in the second half against the Czech Republic and not only scored Ukraine’s consolation goal, but injected some much-needed urgency into the team’s play.
It’s unlikely Ukraine will be overawed – they have quality and experience of their own to call upon. Although it’s likely Pearce’s side will have more of the ball tonight, the key for Ukraine will be hitting England on the counter and using the likes of Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko to get at the back four and cause problems in the final third.
A draw wouldn’t be a bad result ordinarily; with Spain still to play, though, Yakovenko will know this is a fixture Ukraine need to win.
Probable team: Anton Kanibolotskiy; Bohdan Butko, Yevhen Selin, Yaroslav Rakitskiy, Serhiy Kryvtsov; Temur Partsvaniya, Volodymyr Chesnako, Andriy Yarmolenko, Yevhen Konoplyanka, Maxym Biliy; Roman Zozulya.
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