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Ukraine face struggle to realise Euro dream

sports Updated: May 13, 2012 09:11 IST

AFP
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Euro 2012 co-hosts Ukraine are dreaming of an historic success for a young nation two decades after independence but their hopes are blighted by a tough group and a litany of injury troubles.

The co-hosting of the championships with Poland is the biggest event Ukraine has held since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the team wants to inspire a nation that is still mired in poverty and deeply divided.

However, their mission may remain impossible after being drawn in a tough Group D with England, Euro 2000 winners France and traditionally uncompromising fighters Sweden.

Ukraine manager Oleg Blokhin, a legendary striker in Soviet football, nevertheless said he believed his players are capable of clinching a knockout stage place by upsetting the odds.

"England and France can consider themselves the group's favourites, it's their right," said Blokhin, 59. "But we and, I believe, Sweden have our own view of things.

"We have experience of playing well against France and England. And we will do our best to play with dignity in front of our fans. And I believe their support will give us extra strength."

Over half a decade after the Orange Revolution inspired hopes of a new beginning for Ukraine, the country is still battling economic crisis and stark divisions between its Russian-speaking east and Ukrainian-speaking west.

Ukraine now has a unique chance to showcase the nation of over 45 million to the world and create a sense of national unity, despite a furore over the jailing of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko that has led to threats of an EU boycott.

Ukraine's team remains an unknown quantity as the host country did not need to play in the qualifying tournament and only played friendly matches ahead of the event.

But a 3-3 home draw with three-time World Cup winners Germany, a 2-1 win over Austria and the recent 3-2 victory over Israel gave Ukraine's fans optimism.

Blokhin has brought some fresh blood into his squad while keeping the experienced veterans who formed the Ukrainian team's backbone for years.

Veteran star striker Andriy Shevchenko, forward Andriy Voronin, who was named player of the year in the former Soviet Union region this year, Bayern Munich midfielder Anatoliy Tymoshchuk and goalkeepers Olexander Shovkovskiy and Andriy Pyatov will all be likely included into Blokhin's squad.

Meanwhile, Blokhin can also turn to young stars like Denys Garmash, Andriy Yarmolenko and Maxym Koval from Dynamo Kiev, Yevgen Konoplyanka of Dnepropetrovsk and Yaroslav Rakitskiy of Shakhtar Donetsk.

Ukraine made their first and last appearance in a major finals at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, where they reached the quarter-finals, losing to eventual winners Italy.

But injury worries are already casting a shadow over Blokhin's ambitions: Ukraine's first-choice keeper Andriy Dykan looks likely to be ruled out after sustaining facial injuries in a Russian league match.

Shakhtar Donetsk keeper Olexander Rybka was handed a two-year ban for failing a dope test.

Shakhtar defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy remains uncertain because of an injury, while Shevchenko is battling back to full fitness after a serious back injury.