Coach Oleg Blokhin downbeat
11 September ~ There are few optimists among Ukraine fans ahead of tonight's game with England. Despite being unlucky to lose when the sides met at Euro 2012, the most cheerful fans are predicting a draw – a result that would also satisfy coach Oleg Blokhin. Ultra-pessimists have suggested not turning up at all and accepting a 3-0 default loss. The main reason for the gloom is a lack of quality players: a problem exacerbated by high-profile post-Euro 2012 retirements. Andriy Shevchenko, on whom the side relied heavily for goals, and former Liverpool player Andriy Voronin have both gone.
Heirs apparent Artem Milevskiy and Oleksandr Aliyev are talented but too wayward and inconsistent to be of long-term use – neither is in the squad to face England.
Of the younger players, midfielders Andriy Yarmolenko – dubbed the "new Shevchenko" as a youth – and Yevhen Konoplyanka stand out. Both are skilful but tend to struggle against bigger sides. Speaking of his younger players at a press conference, Blokhin suggested they weren't quite ready: "It's time for them to show their leadership qualities but that doesn't happen artificially so let's see who becomes a new leader." He went on to complain that there were very few decent players to choose from and he hadn't decided whether a scout would attend the Moldova-England game.
The coach is the other main problem for Ukraine fans. Though a great player, he has had less success in management and such downbeat press conferences do little to increase his popularity. Some fans blame Blokhin's over-reliance on the older generation for the lack of new talent coming through. Others blame a culture in which the national coach is expected to pick a lot of players from Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk. This leads to quality young players moving there as soon as they can, only to stew on the bench or in the reserves rather than getting match time.
One solution to the lack of talent has been foreign players who could take Ukrainian citizenship. Marko Devic, a naturalised Serb, is likely to start tonight while both Aliyev and Milevskiy were born abroad. Blokhin isn't keen on more of this: "They're on about that again…it's all PR…Stallone has Ukrainian roots – let's get him in the side."
Many Ukraine fans see Group H as having four contenders for the top two spots – England, Ukraine, Montenegro and Poland – and have already settled for second spot behind England. If one or two of Blokhin's youngsters start performing internationally, the return game – almost a year to the day – could be crucial for both sides. Alternatively, Blokhin might have gone after a poor start and the new coach may be persuading a sexagenarian American actor to step into Shevchenko's boots. Saul Pope