Ukraine launch a late bid for second in space-race city

Shevchenko seeks to blast Croatia out of play-off place at site of Soviet rocket project
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The obvious pronunciation challenges are not the only reason why Dnipropetrovsk has failed to feature much on the map of world football. The city's role in the former Soviet – now Ukrainian – space programme made it one of the Soviet Union's most closed cities until the early 1990s. Correspondence was often via mail boxes located in other places.

The unknown quantity for Fabio Capello's side in the Dnip stadium tonight surrounds the state of the pitch. Though the stadium was built only 13 months ago, club sides in Ukraine's Premier League have been complaining about it and the national side's manager, Alexei Mikhailichenko, indicated yesterday that the decision to host the England qualifier here – the Olympic stadium in Kiev to the north-west is still being rebuilt for the 2012 European Championships – has not improved the surface. "We cannot change the pitch. We knew beforehand that we would play there," said Mikhailichenko, remembered by some as a classy midfielder at Rangers in the early 1990s. His side have chosen not to train on the pitch before the game.

The flat, barren industrial lands of south central Ukraine are certainly in need of colour and there is excitement at the prospect of only the second international match to be played in the nation's third city. Not that the locals have found it easy getting their hands on tickets. The game sold out within an hour, such is its huge significance to Mikhailichenko and his team, who must win what is their game in hand over second-placed Croatia to move ahead of them before winnable games for each side – Ukraine in Andorra, Croatia in Kazakhstan – on Wednesday. Draw or lose to England and it looks like curtains.

Ukraine will provide the kind of industry that comes with this territory. To go with the tractors made here – which gave "Dnip" a walk-on part in A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by the novelist Marina Lewycka – are the rocket launchers that have propelled generations of space missions into the sky.

Mikhailichenko is hoping that Andrei Shevchenko will be launching himself with similar abandon. When the Ukrainians arrived at Wembley for the 2-1 defeat on 1 April, Shevchenko was still languishing at Chelsea but he arrived from the bench to equalise and is expected to start now he is back at Dynamo Kiev, the club where it all began for him.

Mikhailichenko said earlier this week that if the 33-year-old striker could produce at Wembley without match practice then he must score twice in the 31,000-capacity stadium tonight. Shevchenko grinned when that was put to him yesterday. "I'm ready to do this," he said. "From match to match I play much better and now I'm near to my optimal conditions."

He is certainly fitter than back in the spring. "I know that every goalkeeper, from England or another country, has no chance of saving a ball which flies high into the left or right corner so we'll try to strike it this way," he added. "But we can't beat England using only one component of our game."

Changes are necessary for Mikhailichenko, with injuries to key defenders Dmytro Chygrynsky and Adrei Rusol and the suspension of the right-back Vitali Mandziuk. That has brought the need for youth. There are first call-ups for 22-year-old Dynamo Kiev defender Yevgen Khacheridi and Shakhtar Donetsk's Yaroslav Rakitsky, 20. With the exception of the defeat at Wembley, Ukraine are unbeaten in Group Six, though Mikhailichenko has said he is planning a cautious approach despite the need to win. "Only an intelligent approach from the whole team will bring us the result we need," the coach said. Bayern Munich's defensive midfielder Anatoliy Tymoschuk will look to pick up Frank Lampard's runs.

The significance of the occasion has seen strangers walking up to the coach and shaking him by the hand in the street this week, so he knows all about the expectation. Dnipropetrovsk is not just on the map at last but at the centre of the country's football universe.

Comments