The ghost of Lobanovskyi still looms large over the current Ukrainian team, managed by Oleh Blokhin. Having been a key player for Lobanovskyi, Blokhin is a true disciple of his former manager. His ceaseless restlessness, constantly seeking improvement, a keen eye for detail, huge emphasis on the team and system of the team and a disciplinarian approach in demanding the very best from his players. Blokhin will go into 2012 with realistic ambitions but there won’t be a more determined nation to do well, indeed many sections of the media and fans haven’t been shy in demanding a Euro 2012 win.
Blokhin doesn’t hold back, saying about his squad for Euro 2012
We don’t call up players for their beautiful eyes. In my team I only want players who are prepared to fight for our country. These players need to be our leaders, but just now they are not fulfilling their potential,” he said. “If this doesn’t change they may not be included in my UEFA EURO 2012 selection. I don’t look at the names.
Amidst the ghost of Lobanovskyi, an exciting set of players have emerged and could provide some surprises in the tournament. The provisional squad will provide the mainstream press all the ammunition they need with old heads present but dig below the obvious names and there is much to be excited about for Ukraine.
Goalkeepers: Oleksandr Bandura (Metalurh Donetsk), Oleksandr Goryainov (Metalist Kharkiv), Maxym Koval (Dynamo Kiev), Andriy Pyatov (Shakhtar Donetsk).
With Oleksandr Rybka, Oleksandr Shovkovskiy and Andriy Dykan all ruled out of Euro 2012, Ukraine find themselves in a precarious position with goalkeepers. A position Ukraine always thought they would have no worries in, two uncapped ‘keepers in Oleksandr Bandura and Maksym Koval have been called up to supplement Andriy Pyatov and Oleksandr Goryainov. Even with three goalkeepers ruled out, the options for Ukraine are decent. Goryainov comes with a wealth of experience at 36, though has had an indifferent season, while Pyatov has come in for the banned Rybka and shown excellent form for Shakhtar.
Defenders: Bohdan Butko (Illychivets Mariupil), Olexandr Kucher (Shakhtar Donetsk), Vitaly Mandziuk (Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk), Taras Mikhalik (Dynamo Kiev), Yaroslav Rakitskiy (Shakhtar Donetsk), Yevhen Selin (Vorskla Poltava), Yevhen Khacheridi (Dynamo Kiev), Vyacheslav Shevchuk (Shakhtar Donetsk).
Defence poses the biggest worry for Ukraine. Going into the tournament they have shown to be leaky, conceding four goals against both France and the Czech Republic. Again, Ukraine suffers from a major omission in the form of Dmytro Chygrynskiy. However, his team-mate at Shakhtar Donetsk, Yaroslav Rakitskiy, offers one of the exciting prospects held in the Ukrainian squad. Dogged in defence, he’s more than capable of shifting the ball intelligently and is a goal threat too. Another Shakhtar defender, Oleksandr Kucher, provides a robust unit and is also capable on the ball. Both players examples of the Lobanovskyi ghost and how that can be carried on into the modern era, in that they are capable in dealing with many situations on the pitch, they aren’t rigid in their defender role, offering a modern-style defence partnership that can shape attacks.
Midfielders: Olexandr Aliyev (Dynamo Kiev), Denys Garmash (Dynamo Kiev), Oleh Gusev (Dynamo Kiev), Yevhen Konoplyanka (Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk), Serhiy Nazarenko (Tavriya Simferopol), Ruslan Rotan (Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk), Taras Stepanenko (Shakhtar Donetsk), Anatoliy Tymoshchuk (Bayern Munich), Andriy Yarmolenko (Dynamo Kiev).
The midfield is where Ukraine’s hopes are largely held. Anatoliy Tymoshchuk has been used sparingly by his team Bayern Munchen post winter-break and will head into Euro 2012 relatively fresh. His main priority will be offering a barrier in front of the defence and helping to spring counter-attacks with his ability to spread the ball swiftly. But it’s with his team-mates in midfield where Ukraine can spring a few surprises. Young wingers Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhan Konoplyanka (both 22) are lightning quick, attack with wild abandon and have many tricks up their sleeve. Yarmolenko provides the width on the left-flank. At 6ft 1, he’s a powerful player that will give full-backs a real worry with his running and rasping left-foot. His goal-scoring record for his club Dynamo Kyiv is excellent and having shone in European competition this season, he goes into Euro 2012 full of confidence. Konoplyanka struts with real swagger but it’s a graceful swagger that is beautifully fluid and slightly languid. He’s capable of beating a man with a piece of skill, always looking to go forward and is a real goal threat. Expect big things from both.
Elsewhere, Dynamo Kyiv duo Denys Garmash and Oleksandr Aliyev are spritely through the middle, along with Ruslan Rotan of Dnipro. The Lobanovskyi effect looms large over the Ukrainian midfield, their midfield is acutely tactically aware and cover each other well. No situation on the pitch is alien to them, they’re capable of sitting back and sucking pressure in and countering with a blistering velocity. But they’re also capable of putting the opposition on the back foot, as seen last November against a strong Germany side, where Ukraine went 3-1 ahead (more on this later). The success of Ukraine very much weighs heavy on the midfield’s shoulders. The experience of Rotan and Tymoschchuk will help the likes of Yarmolenko and Konoplyanka. It’s very much a Lobanovskyi midfield, but with green shoots of modernity.
Forwards: Andriy Voronin (Dinamo Moscow), Marko Devic (Metalist Kharkiv), Artem Milevskiy (Dynamo Kiev), Yevhen Seleznyov (Shakhtar Donetsk), Andriy Shevchenko (Dynamo Kiev)
Yes, Andriy Shevchenko makes it, the man that flopped at Chelsea. Yes, Andriy Voronin makes it, the man that flopped at Liverpool. Undoubtedly the press and many fans alike will look at those two and assume Ukraine will struggle at Euro 2012 but it isn’t as simple as that.
Shevchenko has previously stated that he would withdraw from selection consideration if he felt he wasn’t capable of performing at the top level anymore but he still makes it. Indeed, a look at his recent performances and it isn’t difficult to see why. In the spirit of Lobanovskyi’s constant development and outlook to the future, Shevchenko has adapted his game in recent years. Gone is his yard of pace that used to leave many a defender for dust, but his intelligence in his movement and awareness of space is a real asset to Ukraine. Shevchenko is excellent at providing a dummy run he knows a defender or two will be attracted to, providing space for his team-mates in the process. He knows when to drop off the front-line to provide that bit of space for a winger to dart into. He’s a real team player, despite a career of glitz and glamour taking many plaudits, he’s equally happy playing his part as a cog in the machine to allow team-mates to shine.
Artem Milevskyi, once tipped for the top, goes into the tournament on the back of a strangely indifferent season. He’s been in and out of the Dynamo Kyiv side, sometimes majestic, sometimes frankly useless. At 27 now he should be going into the prime of his career and perhaps Euro 2012 will provide a kickstart for what was a promising career. Most at ease as a striker but more than capable as an attacking midfielder, Milevskyi has a beautiful touch and control that can allow him to glide past players with great balance. At 6ft 3, he’s no pushover and he often seeks to take full advantage of his presence, shifting his body well.
Elsewhere, the sharp Devic provides a genuine goal threat, with four in six games in the Europa League this season for Metalist Kharkiv. Voronin comes into Euro 2012 on the back of an inconsistent season for Dynamo Moskva. He’s often looked too heavy footed and positionally struggles to find areas to do real damage. With the ball at his feet however, he’s capable of holding it up or picking out a pass but will do well to make the final squad. Lastly, Seleznyov is a hard-working forward with a great aerial threat and goes into the tournament with fourteen goals to his name last season, notched in twenty-five games for Shakhtar.
Ukraine, in Lobanovskyi style, are very much a collective team with an emphasis on the team over individual and the systems the team deploy. They’re capable of rapid, fluid attacks but susceptible to leaking goals. Science in Ukraine, as described by a Ukrainian friend, has “become a cesspit”. Science in football however has caught up with Lobanovskyi’s methods, and is now very much in place in all the top clubs around Europe and beyond. Partly as a result, Ukrainian clubs have lost their way on the international stage. A slew of foreign imports has distorted the character of the top sides but the ghost of Lobanovskyi is still clear. Dynamo Kyiv still play in a similar manner. Shakhtar Donetsk, despite many South American imports, still play in a similar manner. Right across Eastern Europe the influence of Lobanovskyi is clear, collective systems trying to control the space as much as possible, subjected to iron fists.
Their recent friendly against Germany is a fine example of their strengths and weaknesses. They went 2-0 up against a very strong German side with a couple of blisteringly swift attacks, with Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko aggressively attacking into the space that was partly created by the genius of Shevchenko. Following a Kroos equaliser, Nazarenko hit a piledriver to make it 3-1 at half time. Come the second half however, Germany ramped up the pace in which they attack and Ukraine’s foundations crumbled from a series of swift and decisive attacks from Germany. The Ukrainian defence is vulnerable to movement and pace.
So, where does this leave us for their chances at Euro 2012? Ukraine go into the tournament full of optimism with much to be excited about and a raucous home crowd to spur them on. Their group offers a challenge but it’s a group they can qualify from. France, revitalised under Laurent Blanc’s management, are all round very good and the trickery and pace of the likes of Ben Arfa, Benzema, etc will test Ukraine. England however, a team that has struggled at recent tournaments, are also susceptible to pacey attacks and movement and Ukraine can capitalise on this. Going forward, England are short of options that will hurt Ukraine’s weaknesses. Meanwhile Sweden aren’t the quickest team both in terms of the players physically and the way they attack. The Ukrainian midfield will work hard to cut the supply line to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and it’s a game Ukraine will look to take something from.
If they manage to qualify they again have an excellent chance of progressing. If they can avoid Spain, they will come up against either Croatia, Italy or Republic of Ireland. All three will offer a stern test but all three are games Ukraine can take something from when firing on all cylinders, which would put them in the semi-finals. It may seem like a pipe dream but maybe, just maybe, in front of a passionate home crowd, Ukraine can take the principles of Lobanovskyi into the modern age with aplomb. One thing’s for sure, they will provide a few surprises to unsuspecting opposition media and fans alike.