Ukraine’s players have three big reasons to be optimistic about their chances of Euro 2012 success – unrelenting home support, the chance to prove themselves in their European Championships debut, and the chance of a share in €13m bonus should they go all the way and win it.
Oleg Blokhin has had a few injury headaches, whilst the country as a whole has come under massive scrutiny for not clamping down on racism. Add to that the fact that their final two games before the tournament ended in defeat, with half the team struck down by a mysterious stomach bug before losing to a Turkey side who have not even qualified for the tournament, and the manager has a recipe for disaster. The success of their tournament will be as much for what occurs off the pitch as on it, but there may be reasons to believe that the players can impress with their football.
The significance of home advantage should not be underestimated, and they may have beginner’s luck on their side as this is their first ever European adventure. As an independent nation, they will be keen to prove their worth on their debut, as they did by reaching the quarter-finals of the 2006 World Cup. As if that were not reason enough to perform well at the tournament, the team has now been promised a bonus scheme that could end up as much as €13m if they were to lift the trophy.
Ukraine are ranked 10 places above their fellow co-hosts Poland in the FIFA world rankings, and despite arguably having a tougher group to contend with, are the favourites out of the two hosts to progress to the latter stages. They face a Sweden team 35 places higher in the rankings that possess an enigmatic player in Zlatan Ibrahimovic capable of producing a goal out of nothing. Despite all of this, the bookmaker’s still have Sweden to finish bottom of Group D.
If Ukraine are to qualify, it is looking likely they will have to contend with England for second spot. France stretched their unbeaten run to 21 games with a 4-0 thrashing of Estonia in their final warm-up game and are heavy favourites to win the group outright. Roy Hodgson on the other hand has suffered a series of unfortunate events, with a spate of injuries, controversy and personal tragedy afflicting the squad.
Success could very well hinge on the smallest of moments. Crucial saves will likely be required from a third choice goalkeeper who finds himself promoted to first as a result of injuries and suspensions. The team’s biggest weapon in their arsenal is the speed at which they counter-attack. It is expected that everyone affected by the stomach bug will be ready for action come Monday, and Blokhin will be able to deploy his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation.
Romanticizing the chance of success of a team that has only managed two victories over their three group opponents may be premature, but Blokhin’s boys will play with no fear. Despite being at home, realistically they will know their chances of lifting the cup are slim. Ukraine will undoubtedly take heart from Greece’s triumph at Euro 2004, and their young and inexperienced squad will just go out and enjoy their football.
Check out the Euro