Andrei Shevchenko is not sure if he will make a final appearance for the co-hosts Ukraine at Euro 2012, but feels certain that, even without his inspiration, a young Ukrainian team can spring a surprise.
The former Milan and Chelsea striker will retire from the national side after the tournament, just three months before he turns 36. Though he has been fighting for fitness, to claim a regular place in the Dynamo Kiev team, he feels he can represent Ukraine one last time.
With or without him, Ukraine cannot be written off, he says, even though they are drawn against England, France and Sweden in Group D.
"We have a young team with potential. A lot will depend on how the young players will deal with the psychological factor," Shevchenko said yesterday. "There will be special pressure on them. If they can handle this, we have a good chance of getting through the group.
"The strongest part of our game is a quick switch from defence to attack. We have got a lot of fast players. So our game will be built on swift counter-attacks, using the wings. These are the strong cards we have to play. We will try to use them."
The Ukraine coach, Oleg Blokhin, parachuted into the hot seat only a year ago, is faced with finding the backbone to stiffen a weak and unstable defence, a problem Shevchenko recognised. "We sometimes have problems in the air and, though we have some strong defenders, we often make mistakes from set pieces," he said. "We have to work on this and correct things, especially with strong teams like England and Sweden."
A goalkeeper crisis has also emerged. Andriy Dykan, who plays for Spartak Moscow, is in danger of missing the tournament after suffering head and facial injuries in a Russian Premier League match.
Following a two-year suspension, handed to Olexandr Rybka, for use of a banned diuretic, this had left Olexandr Shovkovskiy as Ukraine's only fit and experienced keeper. But Shovkovskiy was yesterday ruled out of the Euros with a shoulder injury picked up in a domestic match last week that will keep him sidelined for at least three months.
"Instead of preparations for Euro 2012, I will have an operation on my shoulder joint ligaments and undergo rehabilitation," the Dynamo Kiev keeper said. "The most important thing is for the operation to be a success. I expect my rehabilitation to take three months." The 37-year-old's absence will be a major blow for the co-hosts.
Renowned for his penalty-saving ability, Shovkovskiy, who has 92 caps, became the first goalkeeper in World Cup history not to concede a goal during a penalty shoot-out at the Germany tournament in 2006.
Dykan looks set to miss the finals after picking up a serious injury in March. "I am desperate to be fit enough for the Euro 2012 tournament but time is passing and I understand that my dreams of playing are vanishing," he was quoted as saying last week.
Ukraine play Sweden in their opening match on 11 June and Shevchenko recognised the threat that Sweden's formidable striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic will pose for the host team's uncertain defence. "Zlatan is a player of the highest class," Shevchenko said. "He is having a dazzling season with Milan. He is very fit. A lot will depend on how we play as a team against Sweden. We have got to put the accent on teamwork."
But he said the tall, agile attacker, who is the top goalscorer in the Italian Championship, often disappointed at national level, compared to his club performance. "The trainers and defenders will be analysing Ibrahimovic's game in detail," Shevchenko said.
He added that the France coach, Laurent Blanc, had improved the side, with Karim Benzema emerging as a menace to defences, but said teamwork was the quality that would really matter. "Only teamwork will bring success. The England team have a good chance of making the final. Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, Ashley Young – they all represent a real threat," Shevchenko said.
Shevchenko is the all-time top scorer for Ukraine with 46 goals and was European Footballer of the Year in 2004. Whether he plays or not is likely to depend on a thigh injury and a persistent back problem.
He has also to impress Blokhin, himself a legend of Ukrainian football in Soviet times and a former European Footballer of the Year too.
Asked in March about Shevchenko, Blokhin replied laconically: "Names do not play football. If they did, I could be playing now."Reuse content