Experiential mix helps Ukraine soar
© AFP

"Consistency is a consequence of having the right blend of youth and experience."

Those were the words of Vladimir Bessonov following Soviet Union's impressive charge to the UEFA European Championship final in 1988. The formidable right-back, then 30, was among a majority of players in that silver medal-winning squad born within what are now Ukrainian borders.

Another was Alexei Mikhailichenko, who, in contrast to his aforementioned team-mate, was one of the emerging stars of that side, having only made his international debut the previous year. The former midfielder has clearly taken heed of Bessonov's judgement.

Since assuming the Ukraine reins in January, Mikhailichenko has certainly endeavoured to strike this same balance of youth and experience in his side. The early evidence is that the Kiev native, 45, has realised this goal.

Thirty-second on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking from February through to May, during which time Mikhailichenko experimented with his starting XI, Ukraine have since adopted a winning formula. Recent victories over Belarus and Kazakhstan, 1-0 at home and 3-1 away, have not only delivered them the reward of a perfect start to their 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifying campaign, but also a seven-place rise to 19th on October's world ladder.

Occupying a top-20 spot for the first time since September 2007, Ukraine are now hoping to surpass their all-time highest position of 11th; one they held for four consecutive months during the first half of last year.

Consistency, something the globe's top sides have been struggling to find, could be the key to the Zbirna maintaining their ascent. They have, indeed, won their last four games, which is a feat leaders Spain are only other top-20 team to have accomplished [La Roja have, in fact, posted five straight victories].

Youth and experience
Mikhailichenko has successfully integrated a crop of international newcomers into what was a veteran side. Andriy Pyatov has assumed the gloves from the long-serving Oleksandr Shovkovskiy, and the 24-year-old has conceded just once during Ukraine's four-match winning streak; Grygoriy Yarmash, one year his junior, has also fitted in comfortably in defence; and Oleksandr Aliyev, also 23, earned his first two caps against Belarus and Kazakhstan, impressing in the engine room in the process.

Experience is, of course, still fundamental to the team's prosperity. Zenit midfielder Anatoliy Tymoschuk, capped 80 times, remains its heartbeat, while 28-year-old Serhiy Nazarenko has been in a rich vein of form, scoring the only goal in a defeat of Sweden in Stockholm and a double in the win in Kazakhstan. Then there is Andriy Shevchenko, 32, who rose from the bench to fire home a crucial last-gasp penalty against Belarus, and was on target again against the Kazakhs.

"We now have a good mix of youth and experience and this has benefitted us," said Mikhailichenko after watching his side's opening to preliminary matches to South Africa 2010. "I'm very pleased with these results."

Ukraine's qualification mission will now undergo a stern examination by Croatia, who are sixth on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking and will visit Kharkov on Saturday desperate to recover from a 4-1 home loss to England in their last Group 6 outing. "Croatia are a very good side but I think they underperformed against England," explained Mikhailichenko.

They will be desperate to rebound as soon as possible, so they will play at full strength against us
Alexei Mikhailichenko knows Croatia will be determined to recover from defeat by England against his Ukraine side.

". But I see no difference between playing Kazakhstan or Croatia. Our goal is always the same: to collect maximum points."