Key game in Group H tomorrow
9 September ~ After a slow start to their qualifying campaign, Ukraine's hopes of making it to Brazil have never been higher. Despite a promising 1-1 draw at Wembley last autumn, a home defeat to Montenegro and a 0-0 stalemate with Moldova left Ukraine adrift of the early pacesetters. To make matters worse, iconic coach Oleh Blokhin then quit in favour of a return to Dynamo Kiev. A diverse set candidates were touted as replacements – included Sven-Göran Eriksson and Harry Redknapp – with the experienced Mykhaylo Fomenko eventually getting the nod.
Fomenko, who shares an unnerving similarity with Porridge's criminal boss Harry Grout, has proven an effective and popular antidote to the side's sluggish start. Since taking over last autumn, Ukraine have won seven of their eight matches under his tutorship. The most startling of those wins came in June, with a 4-0 victory away to leaders Montenegro which blew Group H wide open and put Ukraine back in with a chance of reaching Brazil.
"With hope and fear" is Sport Express in Ukraine's take on this evening, admitting that Ukraine face an opponent who "knows how to show the will to win in such difficult moments". The widespread feeling is that tonight's game is the critical moment in the qualifying campaign, with a victory in Kiev considered to be enough of a springboard to see the team past Poland and San Marino in their final two group games. That, combined with England meeting Montenegro in the next round of fixtures, could even see Ukraine progress to Brazil as group winners.
The retirement of Andriy Shevchenko after Euro 2012 robbed the team of its figurehead but the loss was primarily a symbolic one, with the veteran striker well past his influential best by the end. After dalliances with several forwards under Blokhin, Dnipro's Roman Zozulya has established himself as the team's main attacker. His hard running and agitation of defenders is important but the side's key threat, as it was at the Euros two years ago, comes from the wings in Yevhen Konoplyanka, a scorer at Wembley last year, and Andriy Yarmolenko.
"If we win both matches we're in Brazil," said captain Anatoliy Tymoschuk prior to Friday's 9-0 win over San Marino. With the momentum his side have shown over the past six months, such a statement appears hard to contest. Marcus Haydon