Nestor Watach –
After a respectable start to life in the dugout, sitting second in a competitive group and unbeaten going into Friday’s match, came the biggest challenge for Andriy Shevchenko thus far: away to the first genuinely top-class opposition he has faced as national team boss.
On paper, it would be futile to expect to match a Croatia who boast a smattering of talent that are a class above anything that the former Balon D’Or winner has at his disposal – Ivan Perišić, Nikola Kalinić and Mario Mandžukić, not to mention the midfield stalwarts of Real Madrid and Barcelona, Ivan Rakitić and Luka Modrić (between them, claiming the last three Champions League trophies). They are a level above the talented, yet distinctly Europa League, likes of Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko.
The best that one could hope from a Ukrainian perspective would be to create a solid, cohesive team that is better than the sum of it’s parts in order to compete with sheer star power, taking inspiration from the likes of Costa Rica and Iceland in recent tournaments gone by. This occasion would be a fantastic litmus test of Shevchenko’s ability to build such a team. Unfortunately, there was little evidence of it on this occasion.
The first half was an open affair
The first half was a surprisingly open affair. Ukraine were not without their own half-chances, causing some Croatian anxiety from a pair of corners, with Yarmolenko’s composed, curling effort from inside the box forcing a relatively comfortable save from Monaco’s Danijel Subašić the highlight of the half for the travellers.
Croatia’s quality ultimately shaded the half, which could have yielded a much more comfortable lead going into the break, were it not for Rakitić uncharacteristically thrashing at openings, the woodwork denying Mandžukić early on, and Kalinić wasting good, arguably easier, opportunities either side of the one from which he did score.
It was not surprising that Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić’s class created the solitary goal, the latter’s inventive flick-on falling at the feet of the Fiorentina striker, who demonstrated a masterclass in finishing on the turn.
Ukraine actually dominated the second half
The second half was better for Ukraine, especially in terms of territory and the concession of chances—a little conservative as they went forward, rarely overcommitting to give Croatia chances to extend their lead. Shevchenko’s men dominated to such an extent in the second half that they actually finished the match with 55% on the ball.
Superficially, this seems impressive against a midfield boasting world class talent but, in fact, it played into the hands of an experienced, superior side who recognised how little invention and creativity Ukraine posed with the ball. Konoplyanka’s free-kick from range deep into the second half was as close as Ukraine would get, which is to say not very close at all.
The match petered out and would have been extremely drab viewing for the neutral, were these kind of early low-stakes World Cup qualifiers to attract any. It would be a real surprise if a Ukrainian caught the attention of Manchester United manager José Mourinho, seen in the stands, reportedly scouting Inter Milan’s Perišić.
The pattern of play, and the final scoreline of 1-0 created the illusion that Ukraine had competed in this game, though it was only an illusion, as Croatia’s class and experience came through and the result was never in doubt.
The game shows – Shevchenko still has work to do
It was an uninspiring display from the Ukrainians that demonstrates little progress seems to have been made since the summer; “illusions of competing” could characterize Ukraine’s limp exit at Euro 2016 in that they were not embarrassed in the three weak, narrow-ish defeats to Germany, Northern Ireland and Poland, yet fundamentally they were outclassed each time.
Nevertheless, this is still early days for Shevchenko’s Ukraine—and should no progress be made from Fomenko’s tenure, at least a continuation represents a side capable of qualifying, which, at present, can be the only objective.
Overall it’s been a promising start under Shevchenko and, as the greatest footballer in the history of the recently independent nation, Shevchenko deserves plenty of patience while he moulds this team in his identity. A respectable defeat to Croatia is about par for Ukraine, both in terms of footballing infrastructure and the current crop of talent, and the wrong end of a 1-0 scoreline is better than many of the competitors for second place will achieve.
A third-generation Ukrainian of the diaspora, he is now a graduate of Ukrainian Language and Culture from UCL’s School Of Slavonic And East European Studies, which included a stint in Kyiv at the Mohyla Academy. Nestor grew up in Leeds, England where his father took him to Ukraine and Dynamo Kyiv qualifiers, including a trip to see Lobanovsky’s team play Arsenal at Wembley in 1998. Follow Nestor Watach on Twitter @nystyr