At the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™, their first appearance in a major tournament, Ukraine had the good fortune to be drawn in a relatively easy group, beating Saudi Arabia 4-0 and Tunisia 1-0 to qualify second behind section winners Spain. After grinding out a penalty-shootout win over Switzerland in the Last I6, Oleg Blokhin's side bowed out of the competition with their heads held high after a 3-0 quarter-final defeat to eventual champions Italy.
FIFA members since 1992, it seemed as if the Ukrainians would go on to cement their place in Europe's upper echelons. After all, their German adventure was preceded by a tough apprenticeship that saw them just miss out on places at France 1998 and Korea/Japan 2002 following respective play-off defeats to Croatia and Germany.
Fortune deserted them altogether, however, when they were pitched into a daunting UEFA EURO 2008 qualification group alongside France and Italy, the two finalists from Germany 2006. Not surprisingly Andriy Shevchenko and his team-mates missed out on a place in Austria and Switzerland, eventually coming home in fourth place.
Sheva the boss
As he seeks to guide the Ukrainians back to the big time and a place at South Africa 2010, new coach Alexei Mikhailichenko has invested his hopes in a hugely experienced quartet made up of Andriy Voronin, Anatoliy Timoschuk, Oleksandr Shovkovskyi between the posts, and the captain Shevchenko.
Having recently returned to his old Milan stamping ground, Shevchenko remains the undisputed leader of the Ukrainian pack, the heart and soul of the team, and is sparing no effort to return to peak form for club and country. His extended training sessions at the Rossoneri's Milanello training centre are proof of that determination.
"I need to work hard to get back to where I was before," says the man himself, who has a smile back on his face since returning to Italy, even if he faces a fight to win a place in the starting XI. "I'm putting my heart and soul into it but there are still a lot of instinctive aspects of my game that I need to get back. I don't know if I can reach the same standard I was at in 2005 but I'm convinced I can still perform at the very highest level. I'm still hungry and I always want to play and run."
A pupil of the Valery Lobanowski school, Shevchenko has always trained harder than anyone, which explains why his physical prowess remains out of the ordinary. The legendary striker is also convinced his leadership qualities are still intact, and all that remains to be seen is if he has regained the sharpness that made him such a vaunted striker. The signs are encouraging. In his country's first two qualifiers on the road to South Africa, Shevchenko showed his appetite for scoring remains undiminished by notching the only goal against Belarus and striking again in the 3-1 win over Kazakhstan.
Some 13 years after making his international debut against Croatia, the former Chelsea front man is now preparing to take on the same opponents in Kharkov on Saturday in a vital Group 6 encounter. A win for Shevchenko and his sidekicks will take them six points clear of the Croats and firmly into contention for a return to the FIFA World Cup finals.
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