Manuel Veth –
There weren’t too many surprises in the Euro 2020 qualifiers. Finland qualifying was one, but Ukraine finishing top of their group was the biggest. Can they cause more surprises in the finals next year?
Ukraine were placed in Pot 2 and ranked 14th for the qualifiers. It’s always an anxious moment when draws are made. That’s especially the case with any organised by UEFA as they always seem to go on forever. Can Ukraine be one of the surprise packages at next year’s Euros? Ukrainians can place their bets on Pin-Up and see if their hunch can get them a nice return.
Group B became the home for Ukraine, and they were given a tough top seed to face. Portugal were the defending European champions having beaten France in 2016. Despite that triumph, they still had to qualify for the Euro 2020 finals and found themselves drawn alongside Ukraine.
Also drawn into that group were Serbia, Luxembourg, and Lithuania. The top two would automatically qualify for the finals, but Ukraine came into this group knowing they were already guaranteed a place in the play-offs. That’s because they had won their group in the 2018/19 UEFA Nations League. They finished ahead of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, winning three out of four games. That won them promotion to League A for the next tournament and earned them that play-off position.
Ukraine came into the qualifiers, having reached the finals of the last two European Championships. However, they hadn’t had so much success in the World Cup not qualifying since the 2006 finals.
Few expected them to win a group that included Portugal, who hadn’t lost since the 2018 World Cup and also won their Nations League group. The anticipation was a close battle with Serbia for the second qualifying position.
Those hopes soon got upgraded though when Ukraine went to Portugal in March of this year and came away with a goalless draw. Just three days later, Ukraine recorded their first win of the campaign when winning 2-1 in Luxembourg.
That was despite falling behind in the first half and needing a 93rd minute own goal to give them the three points. The same day, Portugal were held to a home draw by Serbia giving Ukraine a point lead over Luxembourg at the top of the group and two ahead of Portugal.
The two fixtures in June saw Ukraine stretch their lead at the top with wins over Serbia and Luxembourg. They beat the Serbs 5-0 at home with both Viktor Tsyhankov and Yevhen Konoplyanka scoring twice. With Portugal busy winning the Nations League, Ukraine found themselves with ten points from four games and six points clear at the top.
Ukraine kept on winning with home and away victories over Lithuania. October 14 saw the big home game against Portugal. By this time, the Portuguese side were on 11 points, five behind Ukraine with a game in hand. Ukraine shocked the double champions with a 2-1 home victory. They scored twice in the first 27 minutes and although Cristiano Ronaldo scored in the 72nd minute, Ukraine held on for the famous win.
Already qualified for the finals as group winners, their final game was a 2-2 draw in Serbia. It looked as if they might lose their unbeaten record, but as in that game in Luxembourg, Ukraine scored in the 93rd minute to grab a point. They finished the campaign on 20 points, three clear of Portugal and have only conceded four goals in their eight games while scoring 17.
After the qualifiers, they have now suffered just one loss in their last 21 games, going back to November 2017. The only defeat was away in Slovakia in their Nations League group. Since then, they have played 11 games, winning seven and drawing four.
Despite finishing top of the group, Ukraine lack a prolific goalscorer. Predictably, the top scorer in the group was Cristiano Ronaldo, with 11 goals. He was closely followed by Serbia’s Aleksandr Mitrovic, who found the back of the net on ten occasions.
The most any Ukraine player could manage was the four scored by Roman Garemchuk, who plays for Gent in the Belgian Jupiler League. He’s turning 24 on November 27 and has scored five goals in his 12 international appearances. Garemchuk is having his best season for Gent with nine league goals in 14 games, which equals his highest total for them. Overall this season he, has 16 goals, already his best return.
Next best for Ukraine was three goals scored by both Ruslan Malinovskyi and Viktor Tsyhankov. Malinovskyi plays for Atalanta in Serie A but spent last season with Genk in Belgium where he scored 13 league goals. Tyshankov is a Dinamo Kiev midfielder who scored 20 goals last season and already has six this season.
Overall, eight players scored for Ukraine in this qualifying group. The lack of a prolific scorer may well cost them dearly in the finals, but at least they have several players capable of scoring for them.
They have three players who between them have represented Ukraine 264 times. Goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov is their captain and the Shakhtar Donetsk player has 93 caps. Andriy Yarmolenko has played 86 internationals for Ukraine and will hopefully be in better form come next summer, than he is for West Ham United at present. He’s scored 37 goals for Ukraine and only Andriy Shevchenko has scored more for them. Shakhtar Donetsk winger Yevhen Konoplyanka has played 85 games with 21 goals scored. The experience of this trio will be vital in the Euro 2020 finals.
Manchester City left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko has only played four times for Ukraine. Hopefully, he will be fit for the finals as he is currently out injured.
The draw for the finals takes place on November 30 and the good news is that Ukraine will be in Pot 1. That means they will avoid being drawn with England, Germany, Spain, Belgium or Italy. Nor can they be drawn against Russia (it’s all very complicated) so they will be in Group C next year.
Ukraine already know one of their opponents in that group and it’s not an easy one. They will up against the Netherlands, who qualified behind Germany. One of the other two teams will be a play-off winner (they don’t take place until next March for some reason) and that could be anyone from Slovakia to Scotland.
If they can continue the form shown in their group, then Ukraine could make it into the knock-out stages next year. That’s something they have failed to do at the last three European Championship finals they have qualified for in which they only won one game. Hopefully next year will be a different story.
Manuel Veth is the owner and Editor in Chief of the Futbolgrad Network. He also works as a freelance journalist and among others, contributes to Forbes.com and Pro Soccer USA. He holds a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States,” which is available HERE. Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently splits his time between Victoria, BC, and Munich, Germany. Follow Manuel on Twitter @ManuelVeth.