By Vadim Furmanov and Mark Temnycky –
Ukraine sits firmly in third place in Group C and is guaranteed at least a spot in the second round of qualifications for Euro 2016. With upcoming matches against Macedonia and Spain this October, will Ukraine find a way to automatically qualify for the group? Futbolgrad’s Vadim Frumanov and Mark Temnycky provide their analyses and predictions on the subject:
What is the verdict on how manager Mykhaylo Fomenko has fared so far as manager of the Ukrainian national team?
Vadim (V): Fomenko deserves credit for turning around Ukraine’s 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign. After his appointment, Ukraine did not lose a single match and advanced past the group stage and into the playoffs. There, Ukraine faced France, and was on the brink of the World Cup after defeating France 2-0 in the first leg in Kyiv. But a heartbreaking 3-0 defeat in Paris abruptly ended the dream of going to Brazil, as Ukraine’s playoff curse continued. Fomenko can hardly be blamed entirely for that defeat, and he has done relatively well to guide Ukraine to this point when they still have a decent chance at direct qualification. But, he has come under fire for his stale tactics, criticism that is at least partially justified (see below). His legacy will depend on the results of the next month, but whether or not Ukraine qualifies, the zbirna (as Ukraine’s team is often called) could use a fresh face.
Mark (M): That Fomenko has done wonders for this national team is illustrated by the contrast between its performance immediately prior to and immediately after his appointment. As co-hosts of Euro 2012, the Ukrainian national team did not have to go through the qualifying stage. This may have had a harmful effect on the national team because the players were not forced into a competitive mindset until the competition began, while national teams that qualified, had to play intensive football throughout qualification. During the championship, Ukraine performed poorly. They were forced to come back from a goal down against Sweden, were outplayed by the French, and despite the ghost goal (the ball never crossed the line), were defeated by England, and quickly knocked off the competition. The frustration of Blokhin, the national team coach, continued as Ukraine drew 1-1 at Wembley Stadium at the start of the FIFA 2014 World Cup qualifications, and led to his resignation. Ukraine then had a series of interim managers before Fomenko was appointed in December 2012.
Following his appointment, as Vadim mentioned, Ukraine went undefeated in its last seven fixtures of qualification. Before Fomenko stepped in, it seemed as if the national team was down and out, yet its later successful spell saw them finish second in their group, thus granting them a place in the second round of qualifications. Ukraine then drew France, which they faced in a two-legged playoff. Due to Fomenko’s strong tactical ability, Ukraine recorded a 2-0 victory over France, and a spot in the FIFA 2014 World Cup finals seemed likely. However, Ukraine collapsed in the second leg when France was able to tie the aggregate score with two first half goals. While one could conclude that this outcome was the result of Fomenko’s poor tactical decisions, the same could not be said for the second half. At the restart Ukraine played with a desire to come back in the game. Yet, in quick succession, defender Yevhen Khacheridi was sent off, then France scored their third goal through an Oleh Husyev own goal. France won 3-2 on aggregate. It was the players, rather than Fomenko, who lost their opportunity to advance to the finals in Brazil.
Fomenko was criticized heavily for his tactics following Ukraine’s 0-0 draw with Slovakia in September. Is this criticism justified, or is Fomenko doing the best he can with the tools at his disposal?
V: Fomenko certainly deserves a fair amount of the criticism. Against Slovakia, zbirna looked listless, and Fomenko seemed content to settle for a draw even though Ukraine had nothing to lose. A victory would have put them in a very good position for direct qualification. Fomenko did not make a single substitution until stoppage time, when Oleksandr Hladkyy replaced Artem Kravets. Obviously the change made no impact on the match. Hladkyy is a bigger aerial threat than Kravets. It is strange why Fomenko did not bring him on earlier, considering the quality of Ukraine’s wingers. Admittedly both Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka are inverted wingers, but had they switched flanks, this could have had a dramatic effect on the match. Speculation aside, Fomenko’s approach against Slovakia was far too conservative.
On the other hand, Fomenko’s options were limited, and Slovakia was content to sit back and effectively neutralized both Yarmolenko and Konoplyanka. Nevertheless, questions must be asked of Fomenko’s tactics—playing ninety minutes with no effort to change the course of the match is not an acceptable way to play when three points are essential.
M: Fomenko cannot be blamed entirely for Ukraine’s recent underperformance. There are two major examples of this prior to its most recent match. First, in Ukraine’s home opener against Slovakia, zbirna lost 0-1 to the visitors. However, the lone goal of the match did not come as a result of Fomenko’s poor tactical decisions. A defensive miscue between Taras Stepanenko and Yaroslav Rakitskiy allowed Slovakian Robert Mak to get through on goal and put his side 1-0 up.
Similarly, when Ukraine traveled to Spain in March, there were several occasions when the visitors should have scored. Ruslan Rotan alone had four shots on goal, but Casillas averted all four efforts. One has to wonder how the match would have been affected had Rotan converted at least one of his opportunities. Thus Fomenko cannot be deemed responsible for Ukraine’s dropped points. It is, rather, the players who are more at fault. It is important to note that despite these two loses, Ukraine has guaranteed at least third place in its group; once the qualification ends, the top third place team also gains automatic qualification while the remaining eight teams play in a two legged playoff in the second round of qualification.
The recent 0-0 draw with Slovakia can also be explained by Slovakia’s determination to play defensively—at times they even had eleven men behind the ball—to ensure that Ukraine would not score. It is, without a doubt, difficult to score when a team plays a jam-packed defense. It goes without saying, however, that a lack of substitutions during normal time was an odd decision on the part of Ukraine’s manager, and it is difficult to defend his judgment in this situation. Nonetheless, despite this poor showing in Slovakia, Ukraine must now shift its focus to its last two fixtures.
What can be said about the team selection? Are there any surprises?
V: The first thing that stands out is the number of Zorya Luhansk players in the squad. The club’s captain, left back/midfielder Mykyta Kamenyuka, and midfielder Oleksandr Karavayev were given first ever call ups to the national team. Goalkeeper Mykyta Shevchenko, defender Andriy Pylavskyi, midfielder Ruslan Malinovskyi, and striker Pylyp Budkivskyi also made the squad. The large Zorya contingent shows just how much progress Zorya Luhansk has made under Yuri Vernyduv’s guidance, as they have transformed into legitimate contenders for the third place spot behind Shakhtar and Dynamo.
Three players were dropped—Mykola Morozyuk, Viktor Kovalenko, and Hladkyy. Morozyuk has received little playing time at Dynamo, while Kovalenko has been called up to the youth squad. Hladkyy was replaced by Dnipro striker Yevhen Seleznyov, whose inclusion was a no-brainer. Seleznyov is in the best form of his life, but the fact that it was Hladkyy and not Budkivskyi who was dropped, once again, is indicative of Zorya’s impressive performances.
Beyond that, there are few surprises.
What is the expected lineup? Are there any question marks?
V: Fomenko has a core group of players who play regularly, and the new call-ups and other Zorya players are unlikely to start, or even feature. Fomenko is simply not adventurous enough to experiment with the lineup before the crucial matches against Macedonia and Spain.
Even though Andriy Pyatov made an embarrassing mistake against Real Madrid and has not started in all of Shakhtar’s league matches, he is unlikely to be dropped in favor of Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk keeper Denys Boyko.
The back four is almost certain to be Artem Fedetskyi, Khacheridi, Rakitskiy, and Vyacheslav Shevchuk, who all started against Slovakia—but only if Khacheridi can recover in time from a minor injury. If not, Rakitskiy’s teammate at Shakhtar, Oleksandr Kucher, will be the likely replacement.
The midfield trio against Slovakia was Stepanenko, Denys Harmash, and Rotan. Harmash has been in fantastic form this season, but was injured and missed Dynamo’s last few matches. He is training individually, and it is not yet clear if he will start. Teammate Serhiy Rybalka will probably step in if necessary.
The front three is rather obvious. Yarmolenko and Konoplyanka are undisputed starters, and Seleznyov has transformed from a poacher into a combined striker-midfielder. He has scored key goals in both of Dnipro’s Europa League matches, and was sorely missed by Ukraine during the match against Slovakia, when he was out with an injury. He will start.
M: It is vital that Stepanenko and Harmash make smart decisions during their first match against Macedonia. It was made obvious, following Harmash’s second booking against Belarus and his absence against Slovakia, that Ukraine does not have a natural replacement in midfield. If Ukraine is to attempt direct qualification, it must ensure that none of its players are sent off prior to the pivotal match against Spain.
In addition, Yarmolenko and Konoplyanka, or “the terrible twins,” have been directly involved in nine of Ukraine’s 12 goals, either through goals or assists. That they will be in the starting eleven is no surprise.
Ukraine’s goalkeeper, in my opinion, is the only uncertain position. In the Champions League, Shakhtar lost its two opening fixtures against Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain by a combined score of 0-7, which must have diminished Pyatov’s confidence in goal. I would not be surprised if Boyko started in goal against Macedonia, only to have Pyatov play in the final match against Spain. Or perhaps Boyko will play both matches? He has certainly proved himself in the Europa League, both in the buildup to the final against Sevilla last season and at the start of this season’s Europa League.
What happens if Ukraine don’t get through automatically?
V: The dreaded playoffs. The other teams currently in third place are Hungary, Croatia, Albania, Ireland, Sweden, Slovenia, Israel, and Turkey. All are theoretically beatable—but Ukraine has lost all five times they have appeared in the playoffs, and will want to avoid this stage at all costs.
M: Ukraine’s playoff record on UEFA’s page says it all. They are most dreaded indeed.
V: Two victories are absolutely essential, as the possibility of Spain or Slovakia dropping points is minimal. A lot of things need to go right for Ukraine to win their next two matches and qualify directly. The return of Harmash and a solid performance in goal from Pyatov will be necessary. If Harmash returns to fitness and recovers his early season form, and if Pyatov can avoid making any serious blunders, Ukraine have a good chance at direct qualification. In addition, Seleznyov must also be a difference-maker. His form with Dnipro this season has been superb, with crucial goals in the Europa League and consistently impressive performances in the league.
If all of the above things happen, then Ukraine will get six points and book their ticket to France. I predict they will beat Macedonia, although it won’t be as easy as expected. Against an already-qualified Spain, Yevhen Seleznyov will score a late-headed winner, sending Ukraine to their second straight Euros. This, however, is a big if, and a mediocre performance against Spain will mean that the playoffs await.
M: It is interesting to see what a difference a month can make. In September I predicted that Ukraine would finish second in its group and qualify directly to Euro 2016. Ukraine’s 3-1 victory over Belarus assured Ukraine of at least third place and the second round of qualification, but their goalless draw against Slovakia changed my opinion. They played with little resolve, and this style of play can be costly in important matches. Regarding their final two matches: though Ukraine should not underestimate Macedonia, it is probable that the Ukrainians will earn another three points on Friday. Meanwhile Spain will face Luxembourg, and a Spanish victory will ensure a place in France next summer.
Should this occur, I am not convinced that Spain will field a weaker side against Ukraine in Kyiv. While Spain’s qualification may be guaranteed prior to Monday’s match, FIFA coefficients will determine the rankings and placements of each qualified team. This means that Spain will hope to earn a top place so that they earn a favorable set of opponents in the group stage of Euro 2016.
Moreover, even if Ukraine claim victory against Spain, it is not guaranteed that they will qualify as the best third place side. Prior to the final rounds of fixtures, Ukraine holds the spot of the highest ranked third place team. Its match against Spain, however, could be the last match that counts toward the race for best third place team. Unless Macedonia manages to pick up enough points to overtake Luxembourg in the table, Ukraine’s match against them will not count toward the third place rankings. Meanwhile, nations such as Albania and Ireland have two games in hand. Should Albania and Ireland win their last two remaining fixtures, and if Ukraine were to drop any points (or in Albania’s case even if Ukraine won), it would lose out on the direct qualification spot.
Ukraine could also rely on Slovakia to drop points in order to try and achieve second place in its group. Yet since Slovakia play both Belarus and Luxembourg, this seems highly unlikely. Entertaining the idea that Slovakia was to lose points—if Ukraine and Slovakia were to end the campaign on level points, despite a potential better goal differential, Slovakia would still win the tiebreaker due to its head to head record (0-1 away; 0-0 at home).
Therefore, I feel it is too little too late for Ukraine. I believe Ukraine is off to the dreaded playoffs. See you in November!
Vadim Furmanov is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science. Originally from Ukraine, Vadim has resided in Chicago since 1994 and is a passionate supporter of both Dynamo Kyiv and the Ukrainian national team. He is also a Chicago Fire season ticket holder and a member of the Fire’s Section 8 supporters group. He writes primarily about Ukrainian football, as well as the intersection between football, politics, and history. You can follow Vadim on Twitter @vfurmanov.
Mark Temnycky is a Ukrainian-American pursuing a joint masters degree in Public Administration and International Relations at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. Follow Mark on Twitter @MTem33
Feature Image via KyivPost.com