Ukraine go into their second Euro 2012 match riding on a wave of euphoria, sitting two points clear of France and England at the top of Group D. Their all-time record goal-scorer, the talismanic Andrei Shevchenko, is playing in his swansong tournament and is desperate to go out on a high.
Shevchenko enjoyed the fairy tale start against Sweden, scoring twice to secure the points, and he had opportunities to complete his hat-trick. France are the co-host’s next opponents, and the 35-year-old striker will have Les Bleus set firmly in his sights.
Coach Oleg Blokhin tried to underplay his side’s chances of success before the opening tie against Sweden, claiming his strikers and defenders were nothing short of useless. However, those mind games paid dividends as Ukraine outplayed the Scandinavians to earn a deserved first round win.
His counterpart on the France bench, Laurent Blanc, has warned his players that they must be much more decisive than they were against England. Samir Nasri grabbed a point for the French by beating his Manchester City teammate Joe Hart with a fine strike from the edge of the area, and France enjoyed the lion’s share of possession. This could play into Ukraine’s hands, as the Zbirna like to hit their opponents on the counter attack, breaking with pace down the flanks. Andrei Yarmolenko did this with devastating effect against Sweden, crossing for Shevchenko’s opening header that sent the whole of Kiev crazy.
Although Blanc has no doubt that the fact his side are group favourites but Ukraine are on top will have boosted the confidence of the co-hosts, he claims that the added pressure and expectation may get to them: “It can be an advantage to play at home but it can be a disadvantage too,” he said. “Ukraine have started very well and they have already played under a lot of pressure.”
That pressure may extend beyond the football pitch, as the county’s President Viktor Yanukovych has not endeared himself to anybody by accusing opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, who has already been imprisoned, of being guilty of murder.
England’s visit will be interesting as political tension has been rising, as has the temperature in Kiev. The players must show Ukraine in a good light, and another dazzling display on Friday may do just that.
With two goals already after just one game, whoever placed a bet on Shevchenko to be top scorer, or even player of the tournament, could be clutching their betting slip should the legendary striker put in a similar performance against France.
See what the expert tipsters at OLBG are tipping on Ukraine v France