Euro 2012 Preview: Ukraine
Co-host Ukraine's preparations for the tournament have been chaotic. Myron Markevych was forced to re-sign as coach in 2010 following a bribery scandal at Metalist Kharkiv, the club he continued to manage while running the national team. He had overseen four friendlies, three wins and one draw, and the sense until his departure was that everything was steadily improving. He was replaced by Yuri Kalitvintsev, who led the Under-19 side to the European Championship in 2009, but in seven months as caretaker, Ukraine won just one of eight matches. So it was Oleh Blokhin, the former star of Valeriy Lobanovskyi's Dynamo Kiev side, who took charge.
Things began badly, as Ukraine's win over Uzbekistan was followed by four successive defeats -- including a 4-1 loss to France and a 1-0 loss to Sweden, both of which Ukraine will meet in the group stage. Blokhin claimed that the only problem was "bad luck" and suggested that a trip to church would turn things around. Whether that was the reason or not, Ukraine has improved recently. It notched wins over Estonia, Bulgaria and Israel and recorded a 3-3 draw with Germany -- in a game it led 3-1 -- before suffering a 3-2 defeat in Switzerland on Saturday.
Tymoshchuk may be 33 years old, but remains the hub of Ukraine's midfield. He is a deep-lying midfielder who is comfortable on the ball and capable of ferocious long-range shooting. Tymoshchuk is intelligent and articulate, and played a key role in establishing Shakhtar Donetsk as serious challengers to Dynamo Kiev before leaving for Zenit St. Petersburg in 2007. He even won a UEFA Cup before transferring to Bayern Munich. Tymoshchuk has struggled for playing time recently, but was used as a central defender in the 2012 Champions League final against Chelsea.
At just 22 years old, Konoplyanka is part of the new breed of Ukrainian players, those brought up in the academies that have sprung up across the country throughout the past decade. A speedy, intelligent winger, he and Andriy Yarmolenko offer a creative spark from the midfield. They must perform if Ukraine is to be anything other than a team full of grinders. Konoplyanka has been a regular at Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk for three seasons and has represented Ukraine at under-17, under-19 and under-21 levels. He also has 18 senior caps.
Milevskiy was born in Minsk and represented Belarus at the under-16 level, but he transferred allegiance to Ukraine before collecting under-17 honors. His technical ability is clear, and he has the sort of physical bulk that has drawn comparisons with Zlatan Ibrahimovic. But at 27, he still hasn't quite made the unmistakable breakthrough that many analysts predicted he would. He's been a regular for Dynamo Kiev for seven years and averages a goal every three games. But his temperament remains suspect. If he can stay focused, Milevskiy could be the ideal foil for a quicker forward to feed off.
Blokhin has worked hard to create a spirit of unity, but that was placed at risk in an April league fixture between Shakhtar and Dynamo. A bizarre decision by referee Yuriy Vaks to send off Denis Garmash -- giving him a second yellow card for wasting time when he was leaving the pitch to receive treatment -- led to a touchline brawl and then an alleged clash between Shakhtar defender Yaroslav Rakitskiy and the Dynamo keeper Oleksandr Shovkovskiy in the tunnel.
"Shovkovskiy insulted my city, my president, my coach and my teammates," Rakitskiy said. "How can I play on the same team for Ukraine? He must apologize."
Rakitskiy -- and Ukraine -- may have lucked out. Shovkovskiy has been ruled out of Euro 2012 with a shoulder injury.
Shevchenko is Ukraine's greatest player -- at least since the fragmentation of the USSR -- and is arguably the most recognizable living figure in the nation. But he is also 35 and has watched his talent diminish for approximately six years. He admits that he has held off retirement in order to play in this tournament, and he has even said that he doesn't mind being used as a substitute. Still, his presence still leaves Blokhin with an awkward question before every game. With none of the other potential forwards -- Milevskiy, Marko Devic and Andriy Voronin -- in consistent form at the moment, Shevchenko may well be given a chance to start.
Realistically, this is average Ukrainian side -- one that's solid with some gifted but inconsistent players up front. Home-field advantage tends not to be a major factor in the European Championship, and not since France in 1984 has the host emerged victorious. Four years ago, both co-hosts, Austria and Switzerland, were eliminated in the group phase. But Ukraine could be different. It's different enough from western Europe in that only three of 16 teams have chosen to base themselves there. That could mean that home field offers more of an advantage this time around than usual.
Blokhin was an arch-tinkerer at the beginning of his tenure, fiddling with 4-5-1 variations before apparently settling on 4-4-2. With Dmytro Chygrynskiy injured, it's far from clear who Blokhin's central defensive pairing will be. Oleksandr Kucher, Chygrynskiy's usual partner with club and country, would seem to be the logical choice, but Yevhen Khacheridi and Taras Mykhalyk were paired together against Switzerland.
The situation at fullback isn't clear, either. Against Switzerland, Blokhin played Rakitskiy, typically a center back or central midfielder, at left back, with Oleh Husyev, a winger, at right back. A more obvious and conservative -- if youthful -- choice would be the pairing of Bohdan Butko and Yevhen Selin.
Tymoshchuk will sweep in front of the back four, allowing Blokhin to play both Yarmolenko and Konoplyanka on the flanks, and then either a central creator in Serhiy Nazarenko or, more likely, a scamperer with a dash of flair in Ruslan Rotan. And then there's the conundrum up front. Devic is big and aggressive, formidable in his own way but not a great technician, and it seems likely that it will come down to a choice between him and the more skillful but less reliable Milevskiy. Then linking between the target man and the midfield will be either the hardworking Voronin or Shevchenko.