When it comes to major football tournaments, Ukraine are never a team that seem to trouble the big countries.
Instead, the likes of Germany, France and Spain lift the titles, whilst only on rare occasions does a smaller nation break that elite domination. In 2004, Greece ‘stunned the world’ according to ESPN, by lifting the European Championship, whilst unfancied Portugal won the event in 2016.
Within the success of those two sides lies a blueprint that could make Ukraine the unlikely dark horse for this year’s competition. Essentially, two types of team usually win a big tournament: one laden with superstars and brimming with quality, or a tactically aware side that grinds out results playing functional if not attractive football. The Ukraine team of 2021 fall into the latter category.
Andriy Shevchenko’s team qualified strongly, winning their group after the disappointment of missing out on the 2018 World Cup, but they did so with few goals. A Euro 2020 feature by Bwin which analyses how the countries qualified, reveals their leading scorer grabbed just four qualifying goals. Ironically, given how lethal their coach was in his day, they do not have his equivalent in their current side.
If they struggle for goals, how can they possibly be dark horses? Firstly, the success of Greece and Portugal acts as a natural map to the trophy. Both those teams worked hard not to get beat, conceded few goals and sacrificed free-flowing football for a functional approach. That is the Ukraine approach too, conceding just four goals in eight qualifying matches. Despite their leading scorer only getting four, they netted 17 as a team, meaning the load was spread across the squad. If they were to lose a key player through injury, it would not affect their output. Could the same be said for France and Mbappe, or England and Kane?
Do not forget, this team also qualified for the top tier of the Nations League, beating Spain and Switzerland, and they held France 1-1 in the recent World Cup qualifier. It is not always spectacular, and as heavy defeats against Spain (4-0) and Switzerland (3-0) attest to, their approach does not always work. However, Nations League matches are very different from the intense schedule of tournament football, something likely to work in Shevchenko’s favour.
Then there are the relationships between the players to consider. These days, most European sides comprise of players from multiple domestic clubs, with maybe two or three from any one team coming together. Ukraine is different, 16 of the squad called up to face France, Finland and Kazakhstan in March came from just two clubs, Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv. Their defence comprised entirely of players from those two clubs, players who understand each other at domestic level as well as on the bigger stage.
Finally, there is the rather generous draw afforded Shevchenko’s side. They share a group with the Netherlands, who have not impressed and were recently beaten 4-2 by Turkey and have drawn with Bosnia and Herzegovina this year. Also in the group are rank outsiders North Macedonia and Austria. Were Ukraine to progress as Group C winners, a third-placed side would await in the last 16. Even if they were to finish second in the group, they would face the winner of Group A, which is likely to be Italy. By that point, legs would be getting tied in some players and the more organised and stifling approach begins to pay dividends.
Ukraine have only ever won a single European Championship game, back in 2012 when current coach Shevchenko bagged a brace against Sweden. In 2016, they were eliminated without scoring a goal, but times have changed and those who understand the game are silently backing the Yellow and Blue to surprise a few people this summer. Just how much of a surprise that will remains to be seen.