Nestor Watach –
Ukraine defeated Finland on Sunday keeping their World Cup dreams alive. Ukraine’s last competitive outing was the lame 0-1 defeat in Croatia, Andriy Shevchenko’s first defeat in charge of the national team. That was a new challenge for the new coach, to tactically match a set of players his own. He couldn’t muster that and now needs to demonstrate the skill of rebounding from defeat.
There was time for recalibration in the recent friendly against Malta, although the 1-0 shock defeat was an opportunity missed. The match against Malta could have been considered a rare chance for experimentation, with ten substitutions made at the break, though neither the team fielded in the first half nor the team fielded in the second half could create an opening against a side who have failed to pick up a point in their qualifying group.
Ukraine then faced Finland on Sunday. Finland have had a poor campaign. They’re not a side who could ever have realistic ambitions to qualify for Russia but would have hoped for more than the solitary point they took from Kosovo at this stage of World Cup qualifying. From the laboured 1-0 win back in October 2016 in Odessa, Ukraine experienced that the Fins can be difficult to break down, but there could be no excuses. Finland are not exactly the group’s whipping boys but have yet to take anything from Croatia, Iceland or Turkey—if Ukraine want to take 2nd place, 12 points from Kosovo and Finland are essential.
Ukraine Delivered With Their 2-1 Victory Over Finland
Ukraine then duly delivered when with their 2-1 win over Finland, Shevchenko’s team remain on course. It was, however, not convincing but the job was done.
The first half passed by almost entirely without incident. It was a slow half from both teams, with efforts on goal largely restricted to speculative shots from outside the box. Even at the best of times, Ukraine have not played with creativity or ideas, but it was absent against Croatia and did not appear to have returned in the run out against Malta. The same was now true against Finland as it was looking likely that there would be no spark and the game would fizzle out before it even started.
The lack of creativity has been the defining problem of Shevchenko’s tenure so far. Ukraine’s best play over the last few years has been when the two wingers, Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka, have wreaked havoc. There was a time when you could imagine them at top European clubs, making the step up and taking their game to another level. But as their careers have stalled—Yarmolenko not furthering his game at Dynamo Kyiv, and Konoplyanka on the benches of Sevilla and Schalke—so too has their form for the national team.
With a dearth of quality options in the centre-forward position, and Viktor Kovalenko and Oleksandr Zinchenko still young and not (yet) proving the revelations they’ve promised to be, the wingers are essential.
Yarmolenko and Konoplyanka Remain Ukraine’s Key Players
So too was it the case last night. It was Yarmolenko’s incisiveness and eye for a through-ball that opened the scoring on 50 minutes—an excellent ball over the top that split the Finnish defence and found Genk’s Ruslan Malinovsky, who was playing in a midfield two, but it was the kind of centre-forward play Ukraine lack. A quick run, and then cheating the ball down with excellent technique to take the ball down and get the shot away—a statement of intent on his competitive start. The shot was parried by the keeper and found the feet of Konoplyanka, who needed that kind of open goal opportunity.
From there, Ukraine looked in a position to comfortably see the tie out, but without a second, were always in danger of sleepwalking into a disaster, which duly arrived in the 71st minute. Ukraine’s blushes look to have been spared, momentarily, as Yaroslav Rakitskiy’s rash header—intercepting a dangerous ball going into the six-yard box—hit the bar, as it could just as easily have found his net. Unfortunately for him, the ball bounced perfectly back into the path of substitute Joel Pohjanpalo who headed down and past Pyatov.
For the second time in the match, Ukraine needed to wake up to avert a catastrophic result—That they did, almost immediately in the 75th minute. Rakitskiy found the ball on the left wing after a free-kick had been cleared—he atoned for his error by whipping in a dangerous ball, which found the head o the 21-year-old substitute Artem Besedin. He got down low and flicked the ball devilishly past Lukas Hradecky, Finland’s goalkeeper.
He would only be on the pitch for ten minutes, and before had only featured for 5 minutes against Croatia. A dream impact for the Dynamo Kyiv forward, who will hope to feature more in the defining fixtures. Himself and Malinovsky offered something new tonight – something vitally needed.
It’s not pretty, it’s still very much a work in progress, but Shevchenko continues to get results. Ukraine are more-or-less where they should be going into the final stretch, sitting in second place on the final whistle, although dropped to fourth with subsequent Iceland and Turkey wins. Two rounds and four matches remain (Turkey, Iceland, Kosovo and Croatia) – Shevchenko’s job so far will live and die in those fixtures.
A third-generation Ukrainian of the diaspora, he is now a graduate of Ukrainian Language and Culture from UCL’s School Of Slavonic And East European Studies, which included a stint in Kyiv at the Mohyla Academy. Nestor grew up in Leeds, England where his father took him to Ukraine and Dynamo Kyiv qualifiers, including a trip to see Lobanovsky’s team play Arsenal at Wembley in 1998. Follow Nestor Watach on Twitter @nystyr