Ukraine’s 2-0 first-leg win over France was arguably the biggest shock of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ European Zone play-offs so far. The Yellow-Blues’ dream of qualifying for their second World Cup finals since 2006 is now within their grasp.
Friday’s clean sheet was in no small measure due to the fact that they managed to stifle the attacking threat of 2012/13 UEFA Best Player in Europe Franck Ribery. The 30-year-old was often surrounded by three Ukrainian defenders during the match, giving him little space to execute the flashes of brilliance we have come to expect from the Bayern Munich winger.
France’s other star players, such as Samir Nasri, Olivier Giroud and Karim Benzema who, like Ribery, ply their trade at some of Europe’s top clubs, were likewise unable to make their mark on the game. By contrast, over 95 per cent of the Ukrainian squad play for clubs in their own domestic league.
For Anatoliy Tymoschuk, Friday’s battle with Ribery took on added significance: The pair were team-mates at Bayern for four years and were part of the side that won the treble of the Bundesliga, DFB-Cup and UEFA Champions League last season.
“I was happy to come up against him. We’re good friends,” said Tymoschuk, who was an unused substitute for the game in Kiev. The 34-year-old also backed his pal to win the FIFA Ballon d’Or 2013 award. “I would vote for him,” he told FIFA.com. “He deserves it. He’s very strong mentally and physically, and he had a magnificent season with FC Bayern.
"He may have scored fewer goals than Messi or Ronaldo, but he’s very important for the club. In the last two years, Bayern have beaten Spain’s two top clubs, Real Madrid and Barcelona, in the semi-final of the Champions League and Franck was one of the key players on both occasions.”
Only one of the two friends can qualify for Brazil, however. After the victory in Kiev, Ukraine are brimming with confidence ahead of Tuesday’s return leg at the Stade de France. “We have to stick to our game plan,” said Tymoschuk. “That helped us through difficult parts of the group stage and won us second place. We are well organised, confident and play with discipline and with a lot of fight. We will do everything to make our World Cup dream come true.”
Up against it
If Ukraine survive the second leg, the tournament in Brazil is likely to be Tymoschuk’s last. At 34, he is now in the twilight of his career. After four successful years in Munich, during which he made 131 appearances and scored four goals, Tymoschuk joined Zenit St. Petersburg in the summer, returning to the club he had previously represented between 2007 and 2009.
The midfield enforcer is not thinking about hanging up his boots any time soon, however: “I can’t predict the future. But I’ve been playing for the national side since 2000 and I’m still prepared to do my utmost for the team.”
This resolution may well be put to the test on Tuesday, as Ukraine’s record in Saint-Denis makes for sober reading. They have lost two and drawn one of their three visits to the Stade de France, conceding three goals and scoring none.
Ukraine’s overall record against Les Bleus is hardly any better. In eight matches, Michail Fomenko’s charges have drawn four and lost three against France, their sole victory coming when the two sides met last Friday.
Ninety minutes stand between Ukraine and football’s showcase event next year. If his team keep their focus, Tymoschuk may well be the one consoling his friend on Tuesday evening. Hardly anyone would have expected that a few days ago.