When the Preliminary Draw for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ was made on 25 November 2007, the story in Group 6 of European Zone qualifying was England's chance for revenge against Croatia, they team who had denied them a place at UEFA EURO 2008 just four days earlier. While everyone focused on the two top seeded sides in the pool, the threat of Ukraine, who were going through a transitional period, went largely unnoticed.
While they reached the last eight of Germany 2006, Ukraine only finished fourth in their qualifying group for EURO 2008, some distance behind Italy, France and Scotland. However, there were some encouraging signs. A new generation of players, spearheaded by Artem Milevskiy, finished runners-up at the UEFA U-21 European Championship in the Netherlands, and even Croatia coach Slaven Bilic warned of their danger: "We have a very difficult group as we got the top teams from the different pots in Ukraine and England. I really wanted to avoid them but we are not afraid."
Rather than become the two-horse race that many expected, it seems that Bilic's premonitions were far more accurate. Thanks to four goals apiece from Sergiy Nazarenko and Andriy Shevchenko, Ukraine have picked up 11 points from their six games so far and are arguably in the driving seat to finish behind England in this keenly-contested group. Their victories against the section's lower ranked teams, combined with home and away draws against Croatia, have taken them just three points behind Bilic's men - and with a game in hand.
Providing they successfully take three points from their trip to Belarus on Wednesday, it seems feasible that the crucial runners-up spot in Group 6 could come down to goal difference, which makes their matches against Andorra all the more important. While Ukraine have a goal difference of +3, compared to Croatia's +8, Andorra have been leaking an average of 3.5 goals a game, giving Alexei Mikhailichenko's men a real chance of making it to the play-offs.
Understandably, the majority of the country's goalscoring expectations will fall on the shoulders of a certain Shevchenko. The striker, who turns 33 at the end of the month, will be expected to spearhead his side's charge to South Africa, starting with goals against Andorra on Saturday.
His coach believes that following his summer move from Chelsea to Dinamo Kiev, he is now in the perfect place to re-establish his peak form for club and country. "Sheva suffered from a lack of action at Chelsea and Milan," said Mikhailichenko. "I believe at Dinamo he will soon obtain the confidence that he needed so much."
The former Dinamo Kiev, Sampdoria and Rangers player is confident in his side's chances of reaching the play-offs. "England deservedly top our group. But our fate is still in our own hands," he said. "We lost points in both our matches with Croatia that we could both win. We also had chances to clinch at least a point in London but lost concentration at the very end of the match and allowed John Terry to score the winner with just five minutes to go."
It now seems that Ukraine will need all of their concentration and confidence to achieve a place in the play-offs. A result against an England side that could, potentially, be qualified by the time they meet on 10 October could render Croatia, Group 6's seeded team at that Preliminary Draw almost two years ago, spectators of the 19th FIFA World Cup.