Ukraine coach Oleg Blokhin has tried to ease the pressure on star striker Andrei Shevchenko as his side prepare to go in search of a UEFA EURO 2012 quarter-final place against France on Friday.
Shevchenko's brace in the 2-1 win over Sweden in Group D on Monday sparked celebrations across the co-host nation and kindled hope that the 35-year-old will end his international career with a glorious final flourish.
Blokhin had to field several questions about Shevchenko in Thursday's pre-game press conference and he sought to downplay the striker's importance to Ukraine's hopes of progressing. "He's a normal person. He's just one of the 23 players that I have at my disposal," he said. "But he gives a very good example of professionalism by showing that you can play at his age. It's the best example for the young players."
Blokhin's pragmatic tone was echoed by midfielder Sergei Nazarenko, who claimed the excitement that has seized much of the country since the victory over Sweden had not permeated the squad. "We didn't feel the euphoria because the supporters felt it," he said. "We were at our training base. We won the game [against Sweden] but we've forgotten about it. We still have two games ahead -- one win is not enough to qualify."
He's a normal person.
Having drawn their opening game 1-1 with England, defeat for France at Donbass Arena could leave the two-time European champions clinging on to a place in the tournament by their finger-tips. However, they are ranked 38 places above Ukraine in the FIFA world ranking and Blokhin dismissed France coach Laurent Blanc's attempts to portray his side as underdogs in Group D.
"England and France are the leaders of world football," he said. "If Mr Blanc said France are just outsiders, I think he's lying a little bit because they have lots of great players and youngsters."
Blokhin, like Shevchenko a former Ballon d'Or-winner, said he would wait until the day of the game to decide on his starting line-up due to "doubts" concerning the fitness of certain players.
The 59-year-old had rebuked his players for their jitters in the closing stages of the win against Sweden, but he said he took heart from the fact that more high-profile teams have also been bedeviled by problems at the EURO. "To my mind, these problems are not unique to Ukraine," he said. "When you watch Holland's game against Germany [a 2-1 loss on Wednesday], they made lots more mistakes than we did defensively. I think that we just played a very bad last ten minutes in defence against Sweden."
The last meeting between France and Ukraine at Donbass Arena saw the tourists emerge 4-1 winners in a friendly match in June last year, but Blokhin warned against making comparisons between the two encounters. "I don't think Friday's result will have any connection with that game," he said. "There are only three players who were in that squad that are at this tournament."