With many observers predicting they would struggle to survive the group stage at their first FIFA World Cup, Ukraine defied the odds by going all the way to the quarter-finals. And although defeat by a powerful Italy side ultimately ended their dreams of glory, the Ukrainians still left German soil with a real sense of achievement.
At the press conference immediately after his side's 3-0 quarter-final loss to the Azzurri, a smiling Oleg Blokhin said he would rather focus on his players' overall performance at Germany 2006 than just the defeat against the Italians.
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"I'm far from disappointed. In fact, I'm satisfied," declared the coach. "Reaching the quarter-finals at our first attempt is very special and a unique achievement for Ukraine."
And yet their campaign could scarcely have got off to a more disastrous start. In their first ever match at a FIFA World Cup, the eastern Europeans were caught cold by the attacking verve of Luis Aragones' buccaneering Spaniards. Trounced 4-0 and reduced to ten men, they paid a heavy price for their lack of experience. So abject was their capitulation that the coach of their next opponents, Saudi Arabia's Marcos Paqueta, went as far as to describe Blokhin's side as "weak".
Little did the Brazilian suspect that his team were about to bear the brunt of the Ukrainian backlash. For in their second match against the Saudis, Ukraine were again involved in a 4-0 thrashing, but this time in their favour. It left no doubt that Blokhin had succeeded in pumping up his deflated players.
Following this much-needed tonic, Ukraine went into their final group game against Tunisia as masters of their own destiny. And while they failed to reproduce the devastating attacking football shown against the Sons of the Desert, Ukraine still did what was asked of them Andriy Shevchenko's second goal of the tournament securing a 1-0 victory and a place in the last 16.
Still far from spectacular, they provided Switzerland with stubborn opposition over 120 minutes in their Round of 16 meeting, before emerging victorious from the ensuing penalty shoot-out courtesy of some fine saves from goalkeeper Oleksandr Shovkovskyi. "We play results-based football," Blokhin said afterwards, dismissing criticism of his team's style of play.
Striker Andriy Voronin echoed his coach's sentiments, explaining: "Our style of play is not very thrilling for the fans but it's served us well so far. We have a solid defence." Solid it may have been, but not sufficiently so to withstand the force of the marauding Italians.
Golden future beckons
Nonetheless, it was with a sense of accomplishment and genuine optimism that Ukraine exited the competition. The plus points included their defence, which confirmed the promise hinted at during the qualifiers. In front of Shovkovskyi, the young Andriy Rusol marshalled a rearguard that went three games without conceding a goal. With his shock of blond hair, midfielder Anatoliy Timoschuk made a name for himself by covering every blade of grass with admirable gusto, while in attack, spearhead 'Sheva' managed two goals and was ably supported by Voronin and Maksym Kalinichenko, the Ukrainian revelation of the tournament.
With a squad featuring four members of the U-21 team who reached the final of this summer's UEFA European Championship , including the promising Artem Milevskiy, Blokhin's braves look to have a bright future ahead of them at future tournaments.
"We're capable of winning the World Cup," declared Blokhin way back when his side had just qualified for these finals. With their brimming talent pool and the experience acquired on German soil, things can get even better for Ukraine in the years to come.