With Ukraine qualifying for what is only their second European Championships as an independent nation we were lucky enough to catch up with Vadim Furmanov, Petro Chymera, and Mark Temnycky – three Ukrainian football experts to discuss the state of the game in the country and their chances at Euro 2016.
Mykhaylo Fomenko’s men have been handed what seems like a difficult draw in facing Germany, neighbours Poland and Northern Ireland who are playing in their maiden finals. World Cup holders Germany should prove to be their most difficult opponent but the eastern Europeans have a very real chance of reaching the knock-out phases this time around should they play to the best of their abilities.
In their only finals to date (where they co-hosted the tournament), Ukraine started brightly, defeating Sweden 2-1 in their opening match. However, the next game ended in a 2-0 defeat to France in Donetsk following severe thunderstorms that delayed the match, hampering their match preparations. In Ukraine’s final match – the infamous one against England, where the team was denied a legitimate goal they went down 1-0 which ensured that they failed to qualify from group stage to end their tournament early.
Head coach Fomenko has now been in charge for four years after taking over on a permanent basis from Oleh Blokhin – the fans are hoping their team will give a better account of themselves this time around after such a disappointing showing in front of their own supporters four years ago.
After having to beat Slovenia in the qualifying play-offs to reach the finals, what do you think of the team’s chances in Euro 2016?
Mark – Ideally, the Ukrainians would have preferred automatic qualification for the finals in France via the group stage but disappointing displays against Spain and Slovakia, where the Ukrainians collected just one point from a possible 12, saw them destined for the second round of the qualification process. Nonetheless the team has qualified for the Euros after overcoming Slovenia and the team certainly have reason to believe they can perform well in France.
First, during the qualification period the Ukrainians only conceded four times in ten matches, thus they had one of the strongest defences in Europe throughout the campaign. What was most impressive was that they held Spain to only two goals in two games. Furthermore, Ukraine only conceded once over the two-legged play-off against Slovenia, further highlighting their defensive capabilities. The team has also played well on the counter attack and also is strong in converting set pieces.
Recent developments, however, may dent Ukraine’s preparation for the Euros. During Dynamo Kyiv’s 0-3 defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk on the 1st of May, a brawl occurred between players from both clubs. The main perpetrators were Dynamo’s Andriy Yarmolenko and Shakhtar’s Taras Stepanenko and Oleksandr Kucher. The incident has strained the relationship between several Ukrainian national team players, and if these relationships remain fractured, the national team may suffer in France.
Ultimately, I think that the incident will blow over and the relationships will be rebuilt – the Euros are too important to let personal issues get in the way.
I believe Ukraine will fare well in their group and they will be sure to use their strengths to their advantage. Advancing from the group stage should be a minimum expectation, but their progression after that is anyone’s guess. Perhaps a quarter-final finish at best.
Who were the stand-out players during the qualifying process?
Petro – Andriy Yarmolenko was the stand-out player for me – the Dynamo forward was Ukraine’s top scorer during qualifying and was the inspiration and creative outlet for the team. He scored a hat-trick away to Luxembourg, but his most important goals came in the play-off against Slovenia. He opened the scoring at the Arena-Lviv in the first leg of the play-off and sealed qualification with the dramatic 97th minute equaliser in the second leg. It was fitting for Yarmolenko to score the goal, as he hunts down Andriy Shevchenko’s goal record for Ukraine. Andriy Pyatov, was also impressive, along with the entire Ukraine defence as they kept seven clean sheets in the twelve qualifying matches, which gives Ukraine a great platform to build on in the future.Embed from Getty Images
It seems that the team have been handed a difficult group alongside Germany, Poland and Northern Ireland. How do you see the group panning out?
Mark – Given the recent FIFA men’s national team rankings released in early April 2016, on paper Ukraine certainly has a difficult group – all four teams within the group are ranked within the top 30 nations in the world. Nonetheless, Ukraine is familiar with some of the opposition that it will face.
First, Ukraine was drawn against Poland during the FIFA 2014 World Cup qualification campaign, where its defence was able to contain the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Jakub Błaszczykowski. Additionally, Ukraine recently performed well against Wales in an international friendly, and although the Welsh side is not a synonym for Northern Ireland, the two sides play very similar styles of football. In my opinion Ukraine is well prepared for two of its three opponents that they’ll face.
Football is certainly a funny sport – Ukraine who were heavy outsiders were able to best France 2-0 in 2013, Slovakia upstaged Spain 2-1 in 2014 – upsets can happen. That said, I do not see a similar feat occurring at the Euros and expect Germany to dominate the Ukrainians (a draw would be a flattering result).
But all in all, Ukraine has history and experience on its side so I think they will be able to climb out of the group. I expect Germany to win the group, Ukraine will narrowly edge Poland for second spot, and Northern Ireland will finish in fourth.
What kind of tactics do you expect head coach Mykhaylo Fomenko to employ during the finals?
Petro – During qualification Ukraine adopted a 4-2-3-1 system, which also works as a 4-3-3. The defence was solid and for the most part stable with Andriy Pyatov in goal and a first choice back four of Artem Fedetskyi and Vyacheslav Shevchuk as full backs and Yevhen Khacheridi and Yaroslav Rakitskyi in the middle. This stable platform was the basis of Ukraine’s qualification as Fomenko played a risk aversion strategy.
Ruslan Rotan and Taras Stepanenko have been the preferred pairing in the more holding roles in midfield, while Denys Harmash and Serhiy Sydorchuk have often been giving the more creative roles. There is however great competition for these positions with the likes of Serhiy Rybalka, Ruslan Malinovskyi, Viktor Kovalenko and Maksym Malyshev all vying for their position.
The wingers Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka are by far the stand-out names in the team, and they will be the ones to watch for Ukraine in the tournament. Both players wield significant influence for the team with their creativity and eye for goal. They will be key for Ukraine and opposition sides will have to nullify their threat if they are to succeed against the Eastern Europeans.
The central forward position for Ukraine has been more of an issue. Yevhen Seleznyov and Artem Kravets topped the scoring charts in this position, but neither were convincing or able to cement their position as Ukraine’s central striker. Pylyp Budkivskyi has been in almost every squad but has not had many minutes, while Roman Zozulya missed the majority of the qualifying campaign through injury. Zozulya was however, recalled by the coach for the March friendlies and despite his poor goal scoring form for Ukraine (three goals in 24 matches and none since November 2013) he is a hard worker and a favourite of Mykhaylo Fomenko.
Fomenko himself has been criticised for being too cautious and not willing to take risks or change things up too drastically. It has often been the case that Ukraine have played routine football and just hoped that Yarmolenko or Konoplyanka would produce some magic. The most frustrating game in the qualifying campaign was the 0-0 draw away to Slovakia. Knowing that a win would put qualification back in Ukraine’s own hands, Fomenko’s side played out a dull 0-0 and rarely threatened to attack a Slovakia side who were content to sit back and take the point. It was disappointing, considering automatic qualification for the top two and best third place, that Ukraine needed the play-offs to qualify. It is an attitude of doing just enough and not more that is costing Ukraine progression to join the next tier of European Football.
The introduction of Andriy Shevchenko to the coaching staff will be interesting however, as in the March friendlies he visibly showed excitement and passion on the bench, in stark contrast to the methodical and calm approach of Mykhaylo Fomenko. Time will tell how much further Shevchenko’s influence will go and if he can inspire Ukraine to take more risks.
Who will be the key players for Ukraine in the summer?
Mark – As Petro touched upon, surely the two most important players are Ukraine’s terrible twins – Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka.
During Ukraine’s Euro 2016 qualification campaign (including the play-offs against Slovenia), Yarmolenko was Ukraine’s tops scorer, scoring six goals in 12 matches, most notably scoring in both legs against Slovenia. In addition, he impressed during the home friendly fixture versus Wales, bagging a goal in the 28th minute to secure the hosts a 1-0 victory.
In Konoplyanka’s case, the Sevilla player is currently enjoying his time in Spain and will be remembered for scoring a goal against Barcelona in the UEFA Super Cup to force the tie into extra time. Sadly for the winger, Pedro scored in the 115th minute to make the score 5-4 with ultimately claimed the trophy for the Catalans.
In addition to his Super Cup heroics, another proud moment from this season was when he assisted two of Sevilla’s three goals in a 3-2 victory over Real Madrid in Seville.
My third, and surely most controversial choice is Yevhen Seleznyov. During the qualification period Roman Zozulya was injured for nearly the entire campaign with Artem Kravets having some difficulty adjusting in some of the earlier matches. It is without a doubt that despite his move to the Russian Premier League, Seleznyov played an important role in Ukraine’s qualification to the finals, where his most notable contributions came against Macedonia and Slovenia.
Finally, Viktor Kovalenko also has the potential of having a crucial role at the Euros. His performance at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup, which saw him win the competition’s golden boot in addition to his recent performances at Shakhtar have been nothing short of superb. He also played well in the recent friendlies against Cyprus and Wales. With a hot-headed Denys Harmash – a which the player has often receives unnecessary bookings, Kovalenko might find his way in the starting line up in the summer.
How are the team preparing for the Finals? Are there any challenging friendlies, training camps, etc?
Mark – Ukraine recently had international friendly matches against Cyrpus and Wales. During the first match Ukrainian Manager Fomenko fielded a relatively youthful side, yet it was their experienced players which helped secure a 1-0 victory over the Cypriots.
Ukraine then recorded an impressive 1-0 victory over the specially selected Wales with an entire senior squad. The match in Kyiv served as a precursor for the Northern Ireland game in June so it was important to perform. I believe that Fomenko was more or less able to pre-select his squad for the Euros after watching his players over the two games.
Ukraine will now look forward to international friendly matches against Romania, Albania, and Moldova. These friendlies will provide additional opportunities for Fomenko to tweak his tactics prior to the big matches in June. Romania and Albania have also qualified for the Euros, so Fomenko will be weighing up potential opponents in France. Following the conclusion of these matches, I expect Fomenko to field a relatively weaker side in the last warm-up against Moldova so that he can rest his key players prior to the match against Germany, which comes a week after this match.
Finally, not a great deal is known about Ukraine’s behind the scenes preparation but we know their training camp during the tournament will be based in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France.
Anatoliy Tymoshchuk is still the captain at 37 years-old – is he the greatest player since becoming an independent country?
Petro – There will always be a debate about who is the greatest player for Ukraine and for the time being it is a straight fight between Anatoliy Tymoschuk and Andriy Shevchenko. Both players enjoyed glorious careers for club sides, both being involved in multiple title winning and European Cup winning squads. For Ukraine, both had great influence and played in both of the previous tournaments Ukraine qualified for – the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2012.
When it comes to on pitch matters, both players are significantly different. Their styles and positions are completely alien to each other so it is a really difficult comparison to make. Regarding Andriy Shevchenko, he was the first to reach 100 caps, and his goal record for Ukraine was phenomenal, averaging 0.43 goals a game. Shevchenko also has the most appearances as captain to date. Tymoschuk on the other hand has been a constant, reassuring presence for Ukraine during this millennium and has often been the foundation for Ukraine’s success in his defensive midfield position. His calming influence on the team matched with his emphatic work rate and sheer determination meant that he was a clear leader on and off the pitch. Tymoschuk was voted the greatest player from independent Ukraine in a 2011 poll called “The Victory of Football”, while Andriy Shevchenko and Olexandr Shovkovskyi were close behind in the top three.
Tymoschuk is now not such a key figure for the national side and is much more of a squad player than ever before. Ruslan Rotan (when fit) has taken over captaining the side and Tymoschuk has been reduced to cameo appearances. This was never more evident than when Fomenko brought Tymoschuk on in the 95th minute of the second leg against Slovenia, in a symbolic gesture when Ukraine had achieved their qualification.
There is no doubt that Tymoschuk is an influential personality in the dressing room and his tournament and career experience in general will be a great benefit to the team. There are however question marks as to whether this is enough to justify his place in the team as Ukraine have options in midfield and Tymoschuk is potentially stalling the progress of some good youngsters. It would be brave of Fomenko to deny Tymoschuk his swansong at the Euros as he has undeniably been a great servant to the Ukrainian national team.
Are there any potential star players coming through the youth ranks that we should know about? Are any pushing for a place in the squad right now?
Vadim – One of the biggest young stars in Ukrainian football right now is 20-year-old midfielder Viktor Kovalenko of Shakhtar Donetsk. Kovalenko was the joint top scorer in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup and since the departure of Alex Teixeira to China in the winter, he has taken on a more prominent role at the club. Kovalenko has already scored two goals in the Europa League against Schalke and Braga and his performances have attracted the attention of Fomenko. Kovalenko played for the entire second half in the friendly against Cyprus and for all 90 minutes against Wales. While this does not mean that Kovalenko will start in France, he will likely see some minutes.Embed from Getty Images
Joining Kovalenko at Shakhtar next season will be the 22-year-old winger Ivan Petryak, who is currently at Zorya Luhansk. Like Kovalenko, Petryak was handed his international debut in the friendly against Cyprus, when he replaced Oleh Husyev at half-time.
Against Wales, however, Petryak was left on the bench. Even though Konoplyanka was not available, Fomenko opted to use the central midfielder Harmash on the left flank, despite Petryak being a far more natural replacement. Petryak may not be called up for the Euros, but he is certainly one to watch for the future.
What is the state of domestic football nowadays – After the Crimea conflict there seemed to be a huge effect not just on football but life in general. What is happening now?
Vadim – Domestic football is currently in a state of perpetual crisis. Other than Dynamo, Shakhtar, and a handful of others, all other clubs are currently facing serious financial difficulties. The two Crimean clubs who were in the Ukrainian Premier League two years ago – Tavriya and FC Sevastopol – have folded and have been re-founded as new entities under Russian law. Currently they compete in an independent Crimean league that is sanctioned by UEFA but not considered an official competition.Embed from Getty Images
Metalurh Donetsk and Metalurh Zaporizhia have also gone bankrupt in the past two years, and after this season ends Volyn Lutsk will also disband and rejoin the league structure in the third division. Metalist Kharkiv, who were regular Europa League participants just five years ago, are also in a desperate situation. Their owner was an ally of the deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and fled the country following the 2014 Revolution. He is currently in exile in Russia but retains control of the club, which is struggling to stay afloat.Embed from Getty Images
Last season’s Europa League finalists Dnipro are also in trouble. They were recently banned from European competition for one season by UEFA for not paying the staff of former manager Juande Ramos. Many of the club’s star players have left, and those who remain have not been paid in months. Owner Ihor Kolomoyskyi, the second richest man in Ukraine, has apparently lost interest in the club and is no longer providing financial backing. There are rumours that Dnipro to could go bankrupt in the near future which would be a massive blow for Ukrainian football.
Serhiy Rebrov seems to be doing well at Dynamo Kyiv – how do you rate him as a coach?
Vadim – Under Rebrov Dynamo have undergone a renaissance. In his first full season as manager he led the side to a league and cup double – the first time Dynamo had won a league title since 2009. This season they are on pace to retain the title after being four point clear having played 24 games at the time of writing.
However, these achievements must be qualified. Dynamo have benefited from the upheavals that the league has been facing. Shakhtar have not played a single home match in two years and due to the fact that several of the displaced clubs have moved to Kyiv, Dynamo effectively play over half of their matches at home. Even when Shakhtar ‘host’ Dynamo in Lviv, Dynamo get far more support from the locals. Shakhtar are clearly at a disadvantage.
But performances in Europe reveal that Dynamo’s success with Rebrov at the helm cannot be attributed simply to Shakhtar’s difficulties. Last season Dynamo reached the quarter-finals of the Europa League, famously beating Everton 5-2 in Kyiv in the Round of 16. This season Rebrov managed to guide Dynamo into the knock-out stages of the Champions League for the first time since 1999, when Rebrov himself was still a player. In this sense, Rebrov’s tenure so far can be seen as a major success.
It remains to be seen what Rebrov can do with the club following the expected departure of Yarmolenko in the summer – or if he will even remain at Dynamo. There have been rumours that Rebrov and president Ihor Surkis have had a falling out over the direction of the club, and that the manager will leave after the current campaign has come to an end.
A huge thanks goes out to Vadim Furmanov, Petro Chymera, and Mark Temnycky for their time and answering the interview questions in such depth. If you are a fan of Ukrainian football please be sure to follow them on Twitter where you can find links to their excellent work on various platforms across the internet.