Fri, Sep 02, 2005 - Page 22 News List

Ukraine on verge of qualifying for its first World Cup


Ukraine is on the verge of qualifying for its first World Cup and becoming the first European team to join host Germany in next year's championship.

Too bad for star striker Andriy Shevchenko and his teammates that no one will be there to see it.

Tomorrow's qualifier against Georgia will be played in an empty stadium in Tblisi. FIFA ordered Georgia to play its two remaining group games behind closed doors because fans threw fireworks onto the field during qualifying matches against Greece and Turkey.

Shevchenko, an AC Milan star, is used to playing in front of 80,000 fans for his Italian club. The Ukraine captain said he doesn't like the idea of playing at an empty venue but would make the most of the occasion.

"This is the decisive match for us, and we are going to finish it in victory," he said.

Ukraine, a former Soviet republic which has never qualified for a major championship, is unbeaten in nine qualifying games (seven wins and two draws) and holds a seven-point lead over Turkey in Group 2. European champion Greece is a further point back, with Denmark in fourth.

By beating Georgia, Ukraine would qualify with two games to spare. Meanwhile, powerhouse teams such as Italy, France, Spain, England and the Netherlands still have plenty of work to do.

"I have dreamed of playing in the World Cup, and the earlier we can win our path to Germany the better," Shevchenko said.

Turkey has to beat Denmark at home and hope Ukraine loses.

"We don't have the luxury to lose," said Turkey coach Fatih Terim, whose team will be left to fight for the group runner-up spot with Greece and Denmark.

Only the eight group winners and top two runners-up are guaranteed of making it to the June 9-July 9 finals in Germany. The other six runners-up go into playoffs to decide the final three spots in the 32-team tournament.

Three-time champion Italy could be the next European team through the qualification door.

Marcello Lippi's side goes to Scotland with a four-point lead in Group 5. The second and third-place teams, Slovenia and Norway, face each other.

With another round of games to follow next Wednesday, Lippi's team could wind up six points clear with just two games to go. That would all but clinch a place in the finals for the 12th time in a row.

Despite the long-term absence of goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon with a shoulder injury, Lippi is confident of a shutout victory at Hampden Park.

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