On Monday, June 11 the Ukraine national team will embark on its first European Championship journey.
With just a few days left before the Euros there are still more questions than answers.
This applies to almost every aspect regarding the team, namely Oleg Blokhin’s tactical approach, constant experiments with the squad, the starting XI, the players’ mental readiness, and their condition after suffering food poisoning in the German hotel before the final friendly game against Turkey.
During Blokhin’s second spell with Ukraine, the team has played 13 matches, registering six wins, one draw and six losses. Ukraine’s path to the European Championship has been very patchy, to say the least. Blokhin’s squad has been plagued by injuries since the day the former Dynamo Kyiv legend was put in charge of the team.
This factor made it virtually impossible for the coach to find the right balance and assemble his ultimate team as he sees it. Blokhin even joked that he and his assistant coach (Andriy Bal) would have to take to the pitch to replace those unavailable.
Almost every game has seen Blokhin heavily rotating the squad as well as experimenting with formations and different on-pitch partnerships. Blokhin keeps stressing that achieving a positive result in each particular friendly has never been put at the forefront of his mind.
Having taken into account all the circumstances, it is hard to disagree with him and therefore the aforementioned statistics and the team’s performance – varying from bad to worse and from good to better – should not be taken too seriously, let alone the fact that these matches were not competitive games.
During this period Blokhin was like Isaac Newton in his heyday, mixing everything and everyone he had at his disposal to come up with the right formula. The game against Sweden will be Ukraine’s first real crash test (or the second Battle of Poltava, as some Ukrainians call this encounter).
Blokhin’s two preferred tactical schemes in recent matches have been a 4-4-2 (4-4-1-1) and 4-2-3-1. He often used the first formation in the first half before switching to the second one after the break. When Blokhin employed a 4-4-2, Ukraine looked much more creative, cohesive and mobile, with one of the forwards periodically dropping into the hole. Most likely, Blokhin will rely on a 4-4-2 to bear fruit.
Another reason for Blokhin to stick with a 4-4-2 is lack of an inventive midfielder who could dictate the game in the attacking third; the form of Dynamo’s attacking central midfielder Oleksandr Aliev this season does not make things any better in this regard. Although Blokhin does not state openly that he is a pupil of the great Valeriy Lobanovskyi, Ukraine’s pattern of play looks very similar to the one Lobanovskyi put emphasis on: incisive counterattacks, building the game around the wings and rapid transitions from defence to attack.
The Ukraine team is still far from being called a well-drilled side, especially with regard to the back four. Ukraine’s key defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy will miss Euro 2012 due to injury. Dynamo’s Taras Mykhalyk has just returned to full fitness after being out of action for quite a long time, and Yaroslav Rakytskiy’s form has not been very consistent this season, both domestically and internationally.
Another Shakhtar defender, Oleksandr Kucher, is yet to prove that he has got what it takes to deliver in competitive games at international level. It is also still unknown who will be deployed at left back, with Vorskla’s Selin and Shakhtar’s energetic full back Shevchuk regarded as possible options. Dynamo’s central defender Yevhen Khacheridi has improved greatly during the closing stages of the season, but his Joey Barton-esque behaviour on the pitch can prove to be a risky business for Blokhin.
Another problem is goalkeepers, namely their unavailability. Rybka received a two-year doping ban from UEFA, while Shovkovskiy and Dykan suffered shoulder and head injuries respectively. Blokhin will have to rely on effectively a fourth-choice keeper, Andriy Pyatov, who started this season as a bench-warmer at Shakhtar, watching the Dynamo Kyiv youth system product, Oleksandr Rybka, cementing his first-team berth.
I agree with Blokhin when he says that Ukraine needs a proper striker. Those forwards who were called up for Ukraine are second-choice players for their respective teams, with Shakhtar’s Seleznyov (Ukrainian League top scorer with 14 goals) being no exception either. Shevchenko is still an influential player but his age and an ongoing fight against back problems are taking its toll.
Shakhtar’s new signing Marko Devic could provide some options for Blokhin up front, as he can play in any forward position. He is one of those players who possess the ability to be in the right place at the right time when it matters most as well as being a real hard-worker, keeping the opposing defenders under pressure.
As for the team’s strengths, there are six main factors: Blokhin’s motivational skills, the huge respect he has among the players, the team’s physical preparation, very promising wide midfielders (Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko), vastly experienced players such as Shevchenko and Tymoschuk and, obviously, the home advantage or the "12th player", as we call it in Ukraine.
The last aspect may sound banal, but it proved to be a real driving force behind Ukraine’s impressive display against Germany and a last-ditch win over Austria, even after being reduced to ten men.
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