Football Friends Online – When 90 Mins Is Not EnoughShould we be scared of the unknown Ukraine? - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough Should we be scared of the unknown Ukraine? - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough

Should we be scared of the unknown Ukraine?

After all the cultural homages and the drawn out affair had passed over in Kiev, England were the last to discover their fate as they were plucked last out of the pots in the draw process for next year’s European Championships. A rather disconcerted reaction emanated from the face of Fabio Capello has he discovered his side will have to play France, 17 games unbeaten under Laurent Blanc as they enjoy a resurgence from the mutinous side that blemished South Africa, and Sweden, Erik Hamren’s best runners-up from qualifying group E. They will join one of the host-nation top seeds in Group D, the more obscure, less convenient proposition of Ukraine.

As the consensus rang out that England’s fate could not be argued with, especially after a mighty big bullet was dodged in the form of group B where a formidable task awaits Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal and Denmark, any sense of English optimism for safe passage through the group stages could be excused barring the negotiation of a tricky looking opener with the French in Donetsk on June 11th. Of course it could have been better; the aesthetically pleasing Group A would have been the setting of choice, with Poland, Russia, Greece and the Czech Republic all playing fixtures in the Polish half of the co-hospitality.

Now here, when all the debate of who is playing who is ebbed away, comes the underlying argument of logistics and to England’s disadvantage, a major concern in that all three group dates will be hosted over in Ukraine despite the teams’ base already being decided in Krakow, the opening appointment with France in Donetsk is clocked at a 955 mile journey as the crow flies. Following this route, even group C, where Spain, Ireland, Italy and Croatia reside, would have been a more convenient outcome with the chance arising that England could not play back in Poland until the semi-final stage. However, as the FA and Fabio Capello have immediately joined ranks to straight-bat away any possibility that a change of base should be explored, it has become a redundant argument before it has even been raised, we are left to focus on whom England will face and being familiar with France and Sweden, having played the Scandinavians a little over three weeks ago, it is the Ukraine that lie as the unknown quantity-in-waiting.

A quick observation of their recent record of major tournaments immediately springs to mind accusations that they should be relative pushovers, having failed to qualify for both Euro 2008 and then the World Cup in 2010 during a spell in which the Ukrainian FA went through three managers in as many years before turning back to Oleg Blokhin, the former Ballon d’Or winner who led them to their only previous appearance at a major international tournament following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1994, the 3-0 quarter final elimination to eventual champions Italy in Germany in the World Cup of 2006. Blokhin then stepped down as he failed to overcome the hurdle of a group containing France and Italy to qualify for Euro 2008 to allow Oleksiy Mykhaylychenko to guide them through England’s qualifying group for the right to participate in South Africa. Despite their 1-0 victory in Dnepropetrovsk being the only anomaly to Fabio Capello’s otherwise perfect strut to the finals, a second place finish was not enough to see them to the finals after a 1-0 aggregate loss to Greece in the play-offs ensued. Mykhaylychenko then passed the reigns to Myron Markevych who quickly found the demands of combining his roles as boss of Metalist Kharkiv with the national job too taxing as he stepped down in  August 2010, a mere 7 months into his stint. Yuriy Kalitvintsev then assumed caretaker control up until April 2011 when Blokhin was re-appointed, Kalitvintsev stayed on as his assistant.

Since the return of Blokhin, Ukraine’s record in friendlies has not been impressive. Starting with two ill-boding defeats to France and Sweden, the former being a 4-1 demolition in Donetsk, Uruguay recorded a 3-2 win in Kharkiv while four September days later the Czech Republic, the lowest ranked team in Friday’s draw, proceeded to a 4-0 thrashing in Prague. Respite came for Blokhin in October as he managed to issue wins over Bulgaria and Estonia while a hugely entertaining 3-3 draw with Germany followed a month later, a game in which the yellow-blues were 3-1 up at half-time to Joachim Low’s much fancied side in Kiev, in what was the first match to be hosted in the renovated National Sports Complex, the intended host of next years’ final. Ukraine rounded off the year with a 2-1 win over Austria in Lviv, courtesy of a last minute winner from Metalist Kharkiv attacking midfielder Marko Devych.

This past year has seen the emergence of Andriy Yarmolenko, Dynamo Kiev’s highly-rated 22 year old midfielder who netted in the games with Germany and Bulgaria, as well as impressing in the recent Europa League tie with Stoke at the Britannia after scoring 16 league goals from 19 games in the Ukrainian Premier League with Kiev. Yarmolenko’s club team-mate Denys Harmash and Shakhtar Donetsk’s Bodhan Butko have both graduated from the side that won the under 19 European Championship back in 2009 as Blokhin has also invested in youth with Yevhen Konoplyanka, Roman Bezus and under-21 captain Taras Stepanenko in order to supplement the aging bones that litter the squad. Andriy Shevchenko is still an integral part of the team, as is Liverpool’s former flop Andriy Voronin joining Devych in attack who posted a respectable strike rate of 14 from 24 league games for Kharkiv last season. Bayern Munich’s cultured defensive midfielder Anatoliy Tymoshchuk provides a vastly experienced backbone to the side while fans may also be familiar with expensive Barcelona flop Dmytro Chygrynskiy, the central defender who in the realms of disbelief, cost the Catalans £25 million euros for a contribution of just 14 appearances before being sold back to Shakhtar Donetsk for a loss of £10 million.

It may also be worth noting that Ukraine will also face England in the next qualifying process for Brazil in 2014, but before that preparations must be honed towards the meeting with Sweden in Kiev on the 11th June, before facing France in Donetsk four days later on the 15th. England is the last stop in group D, a meeting also in the Donbass Arena of Donetsk on the 19th June, a journey that will take in 909 miles for Fabio Capello’s men as they travel from Krakow. However, despite threats existing in certain elements of this Ukraine side, it would take a degree of pessimism to say that England should have a lot to fear in Blokhin’s team and one will certainly point to the huge travel distances as predictably being more of an inconvenience than the Ukraine. Capello should not either, have harboured too much worry from Sweden’s recent visit to Wembley as his experimental side were comfortable in a 1-0 win. However, it is tournament football, England’s usual stigma and any sense of excitable optimism may be shrouded in reasoning that we do not usually do things the easy way. One game as it comes, as the footballing adage goes; sights set on France in Donetsk on June 11th.

Adam Gray @MonkeyLunch21

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