The Ukrainians got the short straw when it came to the draw for the Euro 2012 finals. They went into it as top seeds, but came out of it feeling quite flat.
France, England and Sweden await Oleg Blokhin’s side in the finals – a far cry from Poland’s somewhat simpler fate of Greece, Russia and the Czech Republic – and whilst excitement at hosting the tournament won’t die down in the country, a dose of realism is surely needed.
The Swedes are first up in Kiev on June 11th (Draw 9/4 SkyBet), offering – on paper at least – the Ukraine’s easiest match of the tournament. Things won’t be so simple though, and whilst optimism and excitement could help carry the Ukrainians to pick up a point, the fact that they won’t get any more than that spells trouble for their prospects.
Blokhin has a squad which seems to be split between old and new, with the now 35-year-old captain Andriy Shevchenko still holding onto his international career – probably until the end of the tournament – and thirtysomethings Maksym Kalynychenko, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, Serhiy Nazarenko and Andriy Voronin – yes, the one who wandered around aimlessly upfront for Liverpool for a bit – all expected to play their part.
Relative youth and energy comes in the forms of the Dynamo Kiev striker Artem Milevskiy, who had been tipped for a big move in his younger days but is now 27, whilst the Dnipro midfielder Yevhen Konoplyanka has built up an impressive amount of caps and goals despite being just 22.
A failure to win that crucial opening group match would put the Ukraine in a lot of trouble (group points: exactly 0 9/1, exactly 1 5/1, Bet Victor) given that it is France and England who they’ll take on next.
Both matches will take place at the atmospheric Donbass Arena, the home to Shakhtar Donetsk, undoubtedly Ukraine’s best club side over the past few years. The national team will need some of Shakhtar’s quality to rub off on them.
The France match (France win 13/10 Bwin) could well depend on just how the French have done against England in their own opening game, but with the winner of this group guaranteed to avoid the Group C winners – probably Spain – in the quarter-finals then it is almost certain that Laurent Blanc’s side will be going all out for the win, placing the Ukraine’s hopes in severe danger.
A loss there would shift all of the focus onto the final match with England (England win 15/13 Bwin), and whilst there is so much that is unpredictable about the English in the run up to the tournament, the Three Lions should be able to overcome that challenge if it means that they will secure qualification. That would condemn the Ukraine to the same fate suffered by Austria and Switzerland in Euro 2008 – an early departure from their own party.
Restricted to friendly matches in the last year and half whilst others have competed to join them in the finals, the Ukraine have managed wins over Uzbekistan, Bulgaria, Estonia, Austria and Israel, but whenever they’ve come across tougher opposition – as they will be doing in June – they’ve been left wanting. Bar a thrilling 3-3 draw with Germany in November, they’ve lost to Italy, France, Sweden, Uruguay and the Czech Republic.
The identities of two of those opponents will make this group stage all the harder, and whilst the Ukraine as a nation will be doing all they can to put on a good show, their team won’t be staying around for long (stage of elimination: group stage 8/15 Bet365).