Ukraine secured a place at this summer’s European Championship after finishing as unbeaten winners in Group B.
The former hosts finished three points ahead of holders Portugal and will now be looking forward to a third consecutive Euros participation.
In their previous two outings Ukraine were unable to get out of the group, finishing third (2012) and fourth (2016) respectively, which means reaching the knockout phase will be head coach Andriy Shevchenko’s first objective.
Ukraine have been drawn in Group C alongside the Netherlands, Austria and North Macedonia which, on paper, isn’t the most daunting. So, can this latest class go one better than those who came before them?
The best players Ukraine will bring to Euro 2020
Goalkeeper: Andriy Pyatov
The most senior member of Ukraine’s national team and Shevchenko’s representative on the field, Andriy Pyatov is a few caps shy of a century of appearances. Shakhtar Donetsk’s number one shot-stopper turns 37 in the summer and will be confident of turning out for Ukraine during the tournament despite ever-growing competition from Heorhiy Bushchan and goalkeeping wunderkind Andriy Lunin, who is now on Real Madrid’s books. If he does feature, then Pyatov, who has kept 45 clean sheets across 96 matches to date, would have been first choice at each of their Euro participations having already played every minute in 2012 and 2016.
Defender: Mykola Matvienko
Having made his international debut in 2017, no Ukrainian international has played more times under Shevchenko than Mykola Matvienko (33), who initially started at left-back before moving into the middle of defence. He’s been a near ever-present at the back while the identity of his central defensive partner keeps changing. Not shy of making a challenge, the once Arsenal and Manchester City target is equally talented in possession with his long-range passing often lauded. Matvienko, whose contract at Shakhtar Donetsk expires in 2025, is set to make his tournament debut this summer and would no doubt have already been studying the likes of Memphis Depay and Marcel Sabitzer.
Midfielder: Ruslan Malinovskyi
A solid hand at Serie A’s rising side Atalanta, there’s no question the heartbeat of this Ukraine side is Ruslan Malinovsky whose excellent distribution and ability to retain possession has turned the Yellow and Blue into an easy-on-the-eye force. Malinovskyi’s ability to create space and seamlessly move between the lines not only makes his side tick but also difficult to contain for the opposition. On top of possessing the fundamentals the versatile midfielder, who is as comfortable playing in front of the defence as behind the striker, is another goalscoring threat having already found the net six times across 35 outings.
Forward: Andriy Yarmolenko
Given the reputation of their coach, there’s one area in which his interest will undoubtedly be strong. Regularly finding the net at international level is a challenging prospect, Shevchenko managed 48 strikes in 111 appearances making him Ukraine’s all-time scorer. However, not far behind is Andriy Yarmolenko, who has scored 38 in 19 fewer games. Now at West Ham, the 31-year-old currently occupies the right-wing berth, though has been known to operate on the opposite flank, and will be seen as his nation’s biggest attacking danger this summer, even with potential centre-forwards in the guise of Roman Yaremchuk and Júnior Moraes around.
The manager: Andriy Shevchenko
Not exactly a new phenomenon (see Mark Hughes and Marco van Basten), coaching his national team is Shevchenko’s first senior managerial job, though it’s also fair to say very few saw him sitting in the dugout after hanging up his boots. Then again, leaving the beautiful game altogether would have been a considerable waste considering the knowledge he absorbed during an illustrious playing career that spanned nearly two decades. During that period, Shevchenko was coached by the likes of José Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Fatih Terim, Alberto Zaccheroni and his nation’s greatest tactician Valeriy Lobanovskyi, who is considered among football’s preeminent thinkers. So far, Shevchenko has won 21 of his 44 matches since being appointed in July 2016, whilst seeing his Ukraine side averaging one goal every 66 minutes. His biggest success to date was reaching Euro 2020 unbeaten and taking four points off defending champions Portugal, including a 2-1 win at home.
To date Shevchenko has utilised no fewer than six different formations, suggesting he’s not as rigid as some of his coaching peers. With that being said, the former Ballon d’Or recipient has used the 4-3-3 shape on most occasions, notably during their Euro 2020 qualification campaign.
Another facet of his managerial reign that illustrates Shevchenko’s flexibility is the constant player rotation, having used 60 players so far. Historically, the Ukrainian national team has played a counter-attacking style, but their current boss wants to adopt a more possession-based approach.
“I want the team to play creative football,” he said.
“But there must be a balance. Players must understand when to attack and when to defend or control the ball, when to circle and when to give.”
That ambitious target has come to fruition over the past two years.
The form guide
Euro 2020 qualifying: DWWWWWWD
Being in a qualification group with Euro 2016 winners Portugal and talent-laden Serbia would have given Ukraine pause for thought but they certainly rose to the occasion after beginning their campaign at the Estádio da Luz with a goalless draw. What followed was Shevchenko’s men posting six wins on the bounce which saw them register 15 goals and only concede twice. A 2-2 draw in Belgrade rounded off their campaign and ensured they joined Denmark, Spain, Belgium and Italy as unbeaten Euro 2020 qualifiers.
Recent fixtures: DDDLLWLLLW
Things, however, couldn’t be any more different heading into the championship. Ukraine are a far cry from the swashbuckling Euro qualification winners having picked up just one victory (1-0 v Spain) across their most recent nine international outings, including friendlies and Nations League matches. They started 2021, and their 2022 World Cup qualification campaign, positively though, leaving France with a 1-1 draw.
Chances of making history:
As touched upon, Ukraine in their previous two Euro appearances failed to escape the group phase, and Sky Bet are offering odds of 1/3 for Shevchenko’s team reaching the knockout round. In terms of winning Group C they’re behind the Netherlands, with odds of 9/2 and if that does come to fruition, they are 66/1 to go all the way this summer.
(Odds in this article are correct at the time of writing. 18+ only, BeGambleAware.org)