Ukraine could very well emerge as credible dark horses for Euro 2021 because international tournaments are generally won by two types of teams:
- cohesive units whose players, whether by circumstance or design, have a deep understanding of one another's roles within the team
- conservative sides who defend well and, for want of a better word, grind their way to success.
Falling into the first category would be, say, Spain 2010 or Germany 2014. Both sides played a complex brand of football beyond many other national teams, due to the constraints of time. It is hard to coach cohesive attacking rhythms in the minuscule time that international coaches have with their teams. However, the lion's share of Spain's World Cup winners were drawn from either Barcelona or Real Madrid, whose complex, intricate system was transposed to the national team. Germany's World Cup winners had come through the national set-up together with six of the winning squad having played in the UEFA European Under-21 Championship back in 2009.
Greece 2004 and Portugal 2016 would broadly fall into the second category. Without the above advantages, their coaches - Otto Rehhagel and Fernando Santos, conservative or even agricultural in nature - set their teams up to grind out results. It might not produce the most aesthetically pleasing football, but the results justified the means. It also helped that within those teams there were talented and effective footballers, capable of winning matches with a flash of inspiration, guile or craft.
Ukraine are a mixture of the two above categories, and that is why they could emerge as dark horses for the tournament.
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This is a side who have been building momentum for quite some time. That might sound odd considering their failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup but they were in what could be called a qualifying group of death - they finished third in a Group I that contained Iceland (1st), World Cup finalists Croatia (2nd) and Turkey (4th). From there they won their League of Nations League B Group to get promoted to League A level, where they will test their mettle against Switzerland, Spain and Germany.
They finished top of their Euro 2020 qualifying group that also contained Portugal and Serbia, conceding just four goals in eight games, scoring 17 and were unbeaten throughout 2019.
So what's the reason for this relative and growing success? To this observer's eye, it is the combination of a tight defence and the familiarity that is bred within the tight pool of players manager Andriy Shevchenko selects from. Thirteen of the squad that was selected for their cancelled friendlies against Poland and France in March were drawn from two clubs: Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv – in fact their first-choice centre-back pairing of Sergiy Kryvtsov and Mykola Matvienko play at club level with national team captain and goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov.
Successful football teams are built around several successful mini-relationships within a team; if some of those mini-relationships - say the relationship between centre-halves and their keeper - can be built at club level then this puts a national team at a competitive advantage over their peers. Further, to capitalise on the aforementioned solid footing, Ukraine have a wealth of experienced, attacking options able to prise chances from the most miserly of defences. Yevhen Konoplyanka, Andriy Yarmolenko and Oleksandr Zinchenko are elite-level players.
One weakness within this team – a lack of a recognised international striker – might counter-intuitively represent a strength for Shevchenko. Roman Yaremchuk, 24, was their leading scorer in qualifying, hitting four goals. Four represents a fairly paltry return considering the leading scorer in qualifying - Harry Kane – had 12 goals. The result of their lack of a recognised goal-getter means the responsibility is spread around the team. Teams who are overly reliant on one player for goals can come seriously unstuck at tournament football should that player fall foul of a lack of form or, more likely, injury.
The Yellow and Blue are a cohesive unit, are difficult to score against and, during qualifying, scored at a rate of more than two goals a game. Furthermore, their dark horse credentials are given further weight by the fact that they won the Under-20 World Cup last year, where Serhiy Buletsa claimed the Silver Ball as the tournament's second-beat player and Danylo Sikan took home the Silver Boot. These players, amongst the best in the world at their age level, have another year of development ahead of the tournament due to the corornavirus-enforced delay.
To conclude, they are very good but underrated and are about to get better: the epitome of a dark horse.