England fans and media expressing their ennui at Friday’s sleepwalk of a win against San Marino should count themselves lucky. The team that most would consider to be the main qualifying rivals to Roy Hodgson’s side, Ukraine, are in disarray despite taking a creditable draw home from Wembley last month.
The co-hosts of this summer’s European Championship showed the English what a Friday night flop really was as they laboured to a goalless draw against Moldova in Chisinau – where England had romped to a 5-0 win days before Ukraine’s visit to London. Having followed that with last night’s miserable home defeat to Montenegro, there is already serious doubt hanging over their prospects of reaching Brazil 2014.
Any post-tournament bump following Euro 2012 would have been modest given that Ukraine failed to progress from the group stage, but it was completely blown away a fortnight after the England draw, when coach Oleg Blokhin announced he was joining Dynamo Kiev to replace the sacked Yuri Semin.
It’s not hard to see why the 59-year-old felt the pull. After debuting for Dynamo in 1969, Blokhin spent a whopping 19 years of his playing career at the club, racking up almost 450 appearances for the first-team. Add to that a wealthy, ambitious club newly installed in the imposing Olimpiyskiy Stadium and flush with new signings including Niko Krancjar and Miguel Veloso, and it all makes sense.
The suddenness of the switch completely caught the country’s football power brokers on the hop, however. When news broke of Blokhin joining his old club, Ukrainian football federation president Anatoliy Konkov told journalists he was “shocked”. In recent days Konkov and his board have continued to peddle the line that they are taking their time over appointing the right replacement.
That’s fine in theory; after all, Ukraine don’t have another competitive game until they travel to Poland on March 22nd. Yet it remains to be seen how much their shambolic approach to this brace of qualifiers will cost them. Scoff at England if you must, but they have an excellent recent record in qualifiers, Euro 2008 aside. Their rivals cannot afford to idly shuck points.
What’s more, the upcoming friendlies with Bulgaria and Portugal can’t be treated as scheduling inconveniences. With Andriy Shevchenko now retired, Ukraine’s young talents, led by Andriy Yarmolemko and Maksym Koval, need to come to the fore – but who will be there to guide them? Veteran midfielder Andriy Tymoschuk’s performance at Wembley seemed to indicate that his best form is behind him, and other youngsters such as Yaroslave Rakitskiy aren’t developing as hoped. Leadership is required.
The double-header with Moldova and Montenegro was due to be Blokhin’s swansong in charge of the national side, but he missed out after being rushed to hospital for an operation to remove a blood clot in his neck. His assistant Andriy Bal ended up taking charge instead, though he is not thought to be a candidate to succeed Blokhin.
Certainly, Ukraine need to get their act together sooner rather than later. Their current inertia could be the best news that England have had all international break.