Ukraine’s stuttering preparations for staging Euro 2012 have provided UEFA with continual headaches and things have not gone much better on the pitch for the tournament co-hosts.
Oleg Blokhin’s side have suffered a series of friendly defeats, including losses to Austria and Turkey, who both failed to qualify for Euro 2012, in their final warm-up outings.
To make matters worse, 10 players were then laid low by a stomach bug as Ukraine prepared for today’s Group D clash against Sweden, while their three top goalkeepers are all unavailable for the finals, one because of a doping violation.
Ukraine have slipped from 13th in the FIFA world rankings to 52nd, losing five matches out of six at one stage last year.
A sign of their troubles is that they still look to former AC Milan striker Andriy Shevchenko for inspiration, even though, at 36, he is well past his peak.
Capped 108 times by his country, Shevchenko is promising the fans an improvement on recent performances.
“We won’t dispute the fact that in the games against Austria and Turkey things happened in our team that were far from what was wanted, but there were reasons for this,” he said. “I can assure you in the match against Sweden you will see an absolutely different style of play from the Ukraine national team.”
Shevchenko said he was ready to do whatever his country asked of him in the coming weeks.
“To be honest, I don’t care how many minutes I will be out on the pitch,” he said. “The main thing for me is to do the right things to help the team.”
Most worrying is the loss of Ukraine’s three first-choice goalkeepers, two to injuries and the third, Shakhtar Donetsk’s Olexandr Rybka, to a two-year doping ban after he tested positive for a banned substance in a domestic game. That leaves Andriy Pyatov as their most experienced goalkeeper with 26 caps.
This may prove problematic against Erik Hamren’s attack-minded Sweden side.
The coach recently dismissed suggestions of defensive worries after Sweden conceded three soft goals in two friendly games.
After years of conservative soccer under the pragmatic Lars Lagerback, Hamren will send out a team that is not afraid to be positive.
He has also freed last season’s Serie A top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic from his target man role, allowing him the freedom to torment opponents all over the pitch. Ahead of Ibrahimovic in the forward line is Ola Toivonen, whose goal gave Sweden a shock 3-2 win over the Netherlands in their final game to ensure qualification.
Johan Elmander is likely to start on Sweden’s right flank, with a license to cut inside and make the most of his powerful running.