Ukraine hosted Euro 2012 alongside Poland, but this is the first time they’ve managed to qualify for the European Championship. It is a historic occasion, therefore, though we shouldn't forget that the Soviet Union team that reached the final under Valeri Lobanovsky at Euro 88 was based on Ukrainian players. No fewer than seven from the starting line-up came from Lobanovsky's Dynamo Kiev, and the current team can rightfully feel like their heirs.
This is a unique opportunity to bring some joy to people in the war-torn country, and qualification for the last 16 will be the minimum target.
Is there enough squad unity?
The hot and passionate rivalry between Dynamo Kiev and Shakhtar Donetsk became much uglier than anyone would have imagined in recent times. Kiev winger Andriy Yarmolenko tried to injure Shakhtar midfielder Taras Stepanenko last month, as both sets of players fought on the field. "I won't have to communicate with him during the Euros," Stepanenko fumed.
Since then the duo have kissed and made up in a press conference, with Yarmolenko declaring he wanted only “peace and friendship to prevail inside our team”.
But the disastrous political situation has left its mark on football too, and the Ukrainian league has become much weaker over the last three years; several top clubs are in desperate financial crises, while others simply went out of business. The level of competition is low, and the fact that most of the Ukraine’s players come from local leagues means that they’ve had very little practice against quality opposition during the season.
Personal and political problems could prevent most of the players from fulfilling their potential at the tournament.
What they’ve learned
Qualifying clearly showed that Ukraine have significant problems in attack. They failed to score in four games against decent opposition (Spain and Slovakia), though it must be said that David de Gea was in the form of his life for the game in Kiev.
Creating chances and turning them into goals was a major problem, and the team has been over-dependent on their star wingers to provide any kind of imagination. The lack of a penalty-box predator has been a major problem ever since Andriy Shevchenko retired in 2012, and it wasn’t solved during the qualifiers.
Ukraine's best-known performers are the wingers – Dynamo Kiev’s Yarmolenko and Sevilla man Yevhen Konoplyanka. They are the most technically gifted players and most potent scorers as well, but their current form is far from perfect. All of Ukraine’s attacking play is going through them, which makes them rather predictable, and cancelling them out will be the major issue for any opposition.
Another strong department is central midfield, where Ukraine have a good choice of improving rising stars – Stepanenko and Dynamo Kiev trio Serhiy Sydorchuk, Denys Harmash and Serhiy Rybalka, alongside the veteran Dnipro leader Ruslan Rotan. They provide depth and are quite flexible, while FC Ufa’s 19-year-old Oleksandr Zinchenko could become a revelation if given a chance to shine.
Ukraine’s goalkeeper can also be considered favourably. Although England fans might remember Andriy Pyatov for his disastrous mistake that allowed Wayne Rooney to score the winner at Euro 2012, he is a dependable and vastly experienced player who is able to rise to the occasion.
THE VENOM VOID
Ukraine’s forward line is arguably the worst of the 24 teams at the tournament. Dnipro's Roman Zozulya missed most of the season through injury, but doesn't score many goals anyway. Plus, his attitude is extremely problematic – he recently physically attacked a referee in a Ukrainian Cup game. Artem Kravets, meanwhile, didn't even make Fomenko's squad: he was poor during a disastrous loan spell in Germany at relegated Stuttgart, where he scored just once.
Yevhen Seleznyov is the only typical penalty area targetman, but he is out of favour following the dreadful move to Kuban Krasnodar, while Rubin Kazan's Marko Devic was omitted from the squad altogether. The bottom line is that Ukraine are badly lacking quality strikers.
The defence is also highly suspicious. Yevhen Khacheridi is the best centre-back by a distance, but his disciplinary record is questionable and he easily loses his temper. His partner Yaroslav Rakitskiy didn't have the best of seasons, while others in the backline are simply way past their best – Dnipro's Artem Fedetskyi for one.
Yarmolenko and Konoplyanka are the stars, but both are coming off the back of difficult seasons and it remains to be seen whether they’re able to perform at the highest level.
Yarmolenko, who has been linked to a string of top clubs over the last four years, surprisingly signed a new contract at Dynamo Kiev in the autumn. He scored four goals in the qualifiers, and was rather prolific for his club as well, netting 17 times in local competitions and adding two goals in the Champions League. However, his form suffered after injury in December, and his ill-advised actions during the game at Shakhtar last month cast a huge shadow over his potential contributions.
Konoplyanka, meanwhile, finally moved outside of Ukraine a year ago, signing for Sevilla, but his first season in La Liga wasn’t brilliant by any means. Coach Unai Emery put the winger in the starting line-up just 15 times, and Konoplyanka only scored three goals from October onwards. Sitting on the bench for the Europa League final against Liverpool didn't help either.
The 67-year-old Fomenko wasn’t first choice to replace Oleg Blokhin, who resigned in 2012. The FA wanted to name Shevchenko, and then considered foreign options including Harry Redknapp, so in the end Fomenko was an uninspiring appointment. He has no significant achievements during his long career, and despite steering the team this far, doesn’t seem like the right man to take them much further.
In fact, Shevchenko will likely steal the spotlight – Ukraine’s biggest star was named as Fomenko's assistant at the start of 2016. One would be wise to bet on him replacing the veteran coach after the tournament, regardless of results.