Mark Temnycky –
Ukraine bowed out of the 2020 European Championships after their quarter-final loss against England on Saturday. Unlike the Zbirna’s abysmal run in 2016, the Ukrainians exited EURO 2020 with their heads held high. Ukraine set several records, and the Zbirna’s players were impressive. They also received a hero’s welcome when they returned to Ukraine.
What were Ukraine’s accomplishments during EURO 2020? What do these results mean for the future of the Ukrainian senior men’s national team?
Progression at International Tournaments
Ukraine qualified for their first EURO competition in 2012 as a cohost with Poland. During the group stage, the Zbirnafaced Sweden, France, and England. Ukraine won their opening match, where Andriy Shevchenko scored a brace against Sweden. The victory marked Ukraine’s first win in the competition. Ukraine then lost their games against France and England, and these results saw the Zbirna bow out of the competition. The Zbirna only scored two goals in three matches in the group stage. (On a positive note, FIFA announced it would finally implement goal-line technology in football after Marko Dević’s ghost goal against England.)
EURO 2016 was a different experience, albeit for other reasons. Ukraine overcame their play-off curse by defeating Slovenia to qualify for the 2016 European Championships. Then-manager Mykhaylo Fomenko announced that a strong side would travel to the competition in France. The national team’s performance, however, was poor. Ukraine lost all three of their matches against Germany, Northern Ireland, and Poland. The Zbirna were also the only national team at the tournament not to score a single goal nor earn a single point. The Zbirna exited the competition with a -5 goal differential, and Fomenko resigned.
Determined to make amends for their shambolic performances in 2016, Ukraine approached the 2020 European Championships with a different attitude. Andriy Pyatov, Serhiy Sydorchuk, Andriy Yarmolenko, Taras Stepanenko, and Oleksandr Karavayev were the only surviving members of the 2016 team. Andriy Shevchenko, who was an assistant coach in 2016, was now the head coach of the national team. Shevchenko and his veterans used their experience to teach the new Ukrainian side. The lessons paid off. Ukraine were competitive in two of their three group stage matches, and after a bit of fortune, the Zbirna advanced out of the group stage for the first time in their history. During the Round of 16, Ukraine defeated Sweden in extra time. The result meant that Ukraine would compete in their first quarter-final at the EUROs. While the English eventually eliminated the Ukrainians, the Zbirna achieved their objective of advancing out of the group stage.
Ukraine’s International Fixtures
During the EURO 2020 qualification period, Ukraine were paired with Portugal, Serbia, Lithuania, and Luxembourg. Many expected Portugal would win the group and that Ukraine would have to fight for the second direct-qualification spot with Serbia. The results in the group, however, were surprising. Ukraine won six of their eight matches and drew the remaining two. The Zbirna recorded clean sheets in five of the eight matches and only conceded four goals. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that Ukraine won the group ahead of Portugal, the EURO 2016 winners. To add to this success, the Zbirna went undefeated in the 2019 calendar year.
Based on this form, many predicted that Ukraine would be a dark horse at EURO 2020. Aside from earning eight points from 12 against Portugal and Serbia in 2019, the Ukrainians also earned an impressive draw against Nigeria. The coronavirus pandemic, however, postponed the European Championships. By the time football returned in the autumn of 2020, Ukraine were a different team. Several players contracted the coronavirus during the various international breaks. The Zbirna also had a series of poor results in international friendlies and the 2020/21 UEFA Nations League, where they lost to France, Poland, Spain, and Germany.
These results would appear to be a fluke, however, as the Zbirna bounced back at the postponed EUROs. During their opening match, the Ukrainians nearly stole a point from a difficult Dutch side. For the majority of the game, the Netherlands were in control. The Oranje then switched off defensively, and this allowed Ukraine to score two goals in quick succession. Ultimately, a lapse in focus saw the Dutch score a third goal to end the game, but Ukraine demonstrated that it could compete against some of Europe’s heavyweights. The Zbirna then earned a commanding victory against North Macedonia, despite conceding a needless penalty. In their final group stage match, the Ukrainians needed to win or draw against Austria to assure qualification. The Zbirna failed to deliver as they were flat during the game, and Das Teamadvanced to the Round of 16. Results in other fixtures, however, saw Ukraine qualify as one of the best third-placed teams, and they faced Sweden in the Round of 16. After a nervy affair, Ukraine defeated Sweden in the final minute of extra time. The Zbirna had qualified for their first quarter-final, and had won their first knockout match. Ukraine had lived up to their dark horse status.
Qualification for the 2022 FIFA World Cup
With EURO 2020 behind them, the Ukrainians will shift their focus to their 2022 FIFA World Cup qualification campaign. Ukraine were placed in Group D with France, Finland, Kazakhstan, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Zbirna earned an impressive result in their first qualification match against France, where they drew 1-1. Poor displays in Kyiv, however, saw the Zbirna draw with Finland and Kazakhstan.
After playing a defensive style of football against France, Ukraine were wasteful against Finland and Kazakhstan. Ukraine dropped four important points in the games against the Finns and Kazakhs. The Zbirna failed to break down these weaker sides, and defensively lapses would lead to the Zbirna conceding needless goals. Ukraine were wasteful in front of goal in these games, and this could cost them dearly.
Thanks to the restructuring of the qualification format, Ukraine are still alive in the qualification process. Under the old qualification rules, three points from three matches would have likely derailed Ukraine’s chances of qualifying for the World Cup. The new qualification structure, however, now invites all second-placed teams to the play-off qualification round. Ukraine will have no room for error as they will need to take maximum points from their remaining five fixtures. Failure to achieve these results will likely mean that they will miss out on yet another World Cup. The qualification cycle will return in September 2021.
Future of the National Team
The Ukrainian national team will now enter a transitional stage. Ukrainian veteran goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov recently announced that he would retire from international duty following the 2020 European Championships. Pyatov earned 97 caps for Ukraine.
EURO 2016 veterans Serhiy Sydorchuk, Andriy Yarmolenko, Taras Stepanenko, and Oleksandr Karavayev are nearing their respective exits as well. While these four players (and potentially Yevhen Konoplyanka) may feature during the 2022/23 Nations League and EURO 2024 qualification process, the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualification period may see their last involvement with the national team. These players made their country proud as they advanced to their first quarter-finals at the EUROs, and they will be preparing the next generation of Ukrainian footballers.
The future looks bright for Ukraine. First, several of the Zbirna’s younger footballers are competing outside of the Ukrainian Premier Liha. They have had opportunities to compete in the UEFA Champions League and Europa League, and this has helped them with their development. For example, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Ruslan Malinovskyi have both been impressive in England and Italy. Roman Yaremchuk, who plays for Belgian club Gent, may fancy a move to another European league after his impressive EURO performances. Ilya Zabarnyi, Mykola Matviyenko, Vitaliy Mykolenko, and Viktor Tsygankov have also been rumored to moves abroad. Should these rumors transpire, this would bode well for Ukrainian football.
What Will Be Shevchenko’s Fate?
Finally, the media will be eager to hear from manager Andriy Shevchenko. What does his future hold? When Shevchenko was first appointed to manage the Ukrainian senior men’s national team, many were skeptical that he would succeed. This was particularly the case when Ukraine failed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Shevchenko then turned things around during the inaugural 2017/18 Nations League, where Ukraine won their group in League B. As a result, they were promoted to the competition’s League A. Ukraine then won their EURO 2020 qualification group and were undefeated in the 2019 calendar year. Most recently, Ukraine advanced to their first quarter-final at the EUROs.
Having made history for his national team, Shevchenko will now contemplate his future. Currently, his contract is set to expire at the end of next year. Having managed Ukraine for over five years, Shevchenko may be itching for a new challenge. He has previously stated that he would like to experiment at the club level. He also shared that he would welcome a chance at AC Milan or Chelsea in the event that an opportunity arose. Time will tell after the 2022 World Cup qualification period. Whatever the outcome, Shevchenko has made his country proud.
Mark Temnycky is an AIPS accredited freelance journalist who covers the Ukrainian men’s national team and Ukrainian clubs competing in the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League for the Futbolgrad Network. Mark covered Ukraine for Futbolgrad during the 2020 European Championships. Follow him @MTemnycky