With an ageing squad, political turmoil at home and a tough group; Ukraine boss Mykhaylo Fomenko could do without a player feud on the eve of the tournament. Midfielder Taras Stepanenko recently condemned Ukraine team-mate Andriy Yarmolenko after the pair clashed during a league game.
Dynamo Kiev winger Yarmolenko lashed out at the Shakhtar Donetsk player with both subsequently being dismissed following a melee between the teams who provide the bulk of Ukraine’s squad. Fomenko has urged the pair to kiss and make up, but it’s a worrying rift as they look to improve on a group stage exit four years ago.
Time has flown since they jointly hosted Euro 2012 with Poland, when the pressure of throwing the party seemed to burden the Yellows. Their first European Championship ended up being a pretty miserable experience as they earned just one victory (over Sweden) in a testing section that also featured France and England. However, going through that should benefit the eastern European side this time around but, worryingly, not a lot has changed since then. Well, apart from veteran coach Fomenko being in charge.
The famed former Dynamo Kiev man has been tasked with rejuvenating Ukraine’s fortunes. Their hearts were broken against France in a play-off qualifier to reach the 2014 World Cup but they did learn from that experience and fared a lot better this time around – beating tricky opponents Slovenia over two legs. It was in fact their first win in five play-off ties that they’ve been involved in and bodes well for the knockout football ahead. They showed grit to come through that contest and Ukraine will need that in abundance as they look to jostle for second spot in Group C, behind Germany, and obviously in front of Poland and Northern Ireland.
Fomenko has a tried and trusted formula of getting the best out of his players and they will get stuck in, as well as pull every trick in the book, to frustrate teams. There’s too much of a reliance on Andriy Yarmolenko but on his day, he is a proven match-winner and they always have a chance of nicking a goal with him in the side. Sevilla’s Yevhen Konoplyanka is another player who offers genuine quality.
Playing Germany first-up is a baptism of fire for Ukraine and a heavy defeat could really leave them facing an uphill struggle to qualify, given the apparent splits in the dressing room. There is plenty of experience and leadership in the team but goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov is partial to the odd inexplicable howler while the continued faith in Vyacheslav Shevchuk leaves them vulnerable to pace and genuine width.
STAR MAN – ANDRIY YARMOLENKO
Remarkably for a player as talented as Yarmolenko, he is yet to be tempted away from Dynamo Kiev. They have snubbed numerous bids while he has showed great loyalty. A move is surely imminent, however, and a good tournament could put him on the radar of some big clubs. Pace, skill, a powerful and accurate shot, the 26-year-old is effective wide or through the middle. He’s tall but graceful and glides when he runs with the ball.
It looks like it will be a head-to-head battle with Poland for the second automatic qualifying spot in the group with the lottery of the best third placed teams a Plan B. Ukraine will do well to make it into the last 16.