"The main aim of the team is to win the EURO 2012." This bold statement was made some ten months again by Ukraine coach Oleg Blokhin in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. And it does seem that the co-hosts are peaking at just the right time ahead of the tournament which gets under way on 8 June.
The team from the largest country solely in Europe is currently on a six-month unbeaten run, having defeated Bulgaria (3-0), Estonia (2-0) and Austria (2-1) in recent friendlies and earned an impressive 3-3 draw against three-time FIFA World Cup™ winners Germany. Spearheaded by the country's most-capped player, Anatoliy Tymoschuk of Bayern Munich, Ukraine look as if they fully deserve their place at Europe's top table.
Marked upward momentumUkraine's fans have been avidly following their country's improvement via the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. The most recent table, published in March 2012, saw them jump no fewer than 10 places from 59th to 49th. This, however, is a long way from Ukraine's best-ever ranking of 11th in February 2007, following on from their exploits at the 2006 FIFA World Cup. Nevertheless, the current ranking is the source of no little pride for Blokhin and his squad.
"We're a strong team physically and we always show a lot of effort and commitment when we're out on the pitch," said Tymoschuk in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com back in autumn 2011. "It's the first European Championships for all Ukraine players, meaning that we will have to call on the experience we obtained in the internationals we have played, while the younger players will have to get used to the level required when playing for your country. If we can do that, then we'll be able to show what we're really capable of."
Any euphoria however is being kept under wraps, due in no small part to Ukraine having the second-lowest ranking of the 16 teams at the EURO. Poland, who are co-hosts of this hotly-anticipated final phase, are the only team lower – down at 75th in fact. As such, Tymoschuk and his team-mates know they will have to be at their absolute best when they face France, England and Sweden in Group D.
'One step at a time'Blokhin is taking this opportunity to qualify his previous lofty goals somewhat. "Obviously our first objective must be to get out of the group stage," the coach said. "We'll give it our best shot, but obviously if we don't achieve our first goal, then we won't be able to achieve our main aim either. So we need to take things one step at a time." The former international star sees his greatest challenge as bringing some stability to the defence. "I've got fewer worries about the midfield and attack – we've got some very promising players there," he said.
Plenty of pundits think Ukraine's fortunes will live and die with Andriy Shevchenko. The legendary striker, now 35, has set himself the goal of returning to top form in time for the EURO on his home soil. A heel injury has set him back in his preparations for the tournament, meaning that the 2004 European Footballer of the Year and former AC Milan and Chelsea star, who is finishing out his career with his home town club of Dynamo Kyiv, is facing a race against time to be fully fit.
Hopes of long-term progressThe real star of the Ukraine squad is the coach, however. Shevchenko himself recently said that Blokhin's return to the helm of the national team in April 2011 has boosted the squad's confidence, and it is hoped that this will rub off throughout the 45 million inhabitants of the country. This, after all, is the main way to ensure the beautiful game continues to make progress beyond UEFA EURO 2012.
"It's already become very clear that the European Championships could potentially give the development both of Ukrainian football and the country's infrastructure a real boost," Blokhin told FIFA.com. "At the same time, hosting EURO 2012 is also a real challenge for the country, since it's the first time that we'll be organising such a major event. This European Championship will be something of a test run to see how capable we are of organising similar events in the future. It's no exaggeration to say that the people of Ukraine can't wait for the show to get under way and to have the opportunity to demonstrate some of our legendary hospitality."