by Trevor Whenham
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Ukraine is making its first appearance in the World Cup, 14 years after gaining independence when the USSR dissolved. At that time the team essentially had to start from scratch, since many of the best Ukrainian players who had played internationally for the USSR chose to play for Russia after the break up.
Not only is this the team's first World Cup, it is also its first major championship of any kind. You would expect, then, that this will be a green team that can be easily disregarded in Germany. You would be very wrong. It is a deep, solid team that had won its tough qualifying group before its last two games were even played. In group play it beat both Turkey, which finished third in the 2002 World Cup, and upstart Euro 2004 champion Greece in road matches. It also played consistently strong Denmark to a draw in another road contest. It may be its first appearance, but Ukraine comes in ready to make a statement.
The team is coached by Oleg Blokhin, who is a major national hero in Ukraine. He took over the reins of the team after they failed to qualify for Euro 2004. Blokhin was the European Footballer of the Year in 1975 when he led Dynamo Kiev to a resounding win in the Super Cup over Bayern Munich. He was the key player in strong showings for the USSR in the 1982 and 1986 World Cups. He was a technically astounding player who was incredibly fast. As coach, he has focused on those same elements with this team and the results are obvious. It may be overly optimistic, but Blokhin has openly stated that his team will win it all in Germany.
Though it was under a different coach and a different system, Ukraine has played its main rival in the group, Spain, twice in recent times. During Euro 2004 qualifications Ukraine played to a 2-2 draw once and lost 2-1 in a second, tightly fought game. Though this means almost nothing in real terms, most of the Ukrainian roster remains the same, so at least the team comes into this tournament with the confidence that it can match up well against the unquestioned top team in the group.
Ukraine World Cup 2006 Odds: Bodog has Ukraine listed at 50-1 to win the 2006 World Cup. There are 12 teams with better odds.
Strengths: Even the shortest list of the best active players in the world includes Andriy Shevchenko, the Ukrainian striker who plays for AC Milan. He was the European Footballer of the Year in 2004. He is a soccer predator, lurking about and waiting for his moment before striking with startling aggressiveness. He scored six goals in qualifying and is without a doubt the best player on the team. Teams have to focus extra attention on him, freeing up room for other players. Ukraine is here largely because of Shevchenko and he has the ability to lead them a long way.
Ukraine is very strong on defense. This team allowed 7 goals in 12 qualifying games, including 3 in the last two games when it had already secured its berth in Germany. Goalkeeper Alexander Shovkovsky of Dynamo Kiev is certainly solid and he has the luxury of playing behind a very cohesive and competent backfield. There are no real stars in the backfield and several players stand a chance of seeing significant playing time. Many of the players play together on club teams, creating the familiarity and assuredness that is crucial to defensive success. Andrey Rusol, though only 22, is the leading force for the defenders, with athleticism matched by tactical awareness.
Coach Blokhin has been a huge asset for the team. These players grew up watching and worshipping the soccer superstar and there is nothing that he will ask them to do that he hasn't done many times before. On a team with no major international experience on the pitch, that voice of wisdom will be crucial to their success.
Weaknesses: Ironically, Shevchenko could be a weakness. If he is off his game, gets injured or an opponent finds a way to render him useless, the whole team will struggle. Any team that is so definitely built around one superstar, both in terms of performance and leadership, is vulnerable in this way.
The midfield causes some concerns. Ruslan Rotan and Andrei Gusan are solid players that will contribute to the score sheet, but the midfield as a whole doesn't inspire confidence. It is not terrible, but it can look lax and uninterested at times. Aggressive, talented teams can feast on that and put extra pressure on the defensive unit.
Ukraine World Cup 2006 Outlook: It's hard not to like this team. The Ukraine comes into the tournament in solid form, it has an incredible superstar, talented players abound and it is well coached. It has the advantage of being placed a reasonably weak group. If the Ukraine plays to its ability, the team should be able to comfortably handle South Korea and Saudi Arabia and provide more of a challenge for Spain than the Spanish side would like. It will be more of a surprise if Ukraine does not advance than it will be if they do.
If this team does make it to the second round it will be dangerous. This is not the most talented team in the world by any means, but it is the kind of team that could get it together and go deep. Shevchenko will join Blokhin as an eternal soccer hero if they do.
Ukraine World Cup 2006 first Round Match Schedule (all times local):
Wednesday, June 14, Group H1 Spain vs. Group H2 Ukraine, in Leipzig, 3 p.m.
Monday, June 19, Group H4 Saudi Arabia vs. Group H2 Ukraine, in Hamburg, 6 p.m.
Friday, June 23, Group H2 Ukraine vs. Group H3 Tunisia, in Berlin, 4 p.m.
Updated Ukraine World Cup 2006 News: