Ukraine's Becks faces the unthinkable

Shevchenko has been his country's No 1 hitman for years but he may be left out for Wembley mission

He is the wrong side of 30, with a garlanded career behind him. There have been dark rumblings as to whether his wife may have led him to focus on the celebrity side of his career to the detriment of his football.

Every time he leaves the elephants' graveyard of Milan to play for the national team he seems to reach a new landmark. He may play at Wembley on Wednesday, or he may not, and nobody is quite sure whether the country really is best served by such a superannuated figure. When the geriatrics pull the bathchairs together to watch Watercolour Challenge – or whatever it is they do in their down-time at Milanello – you imagine Andriy Shevchenko and David Beckham find plenty to talk about.

So far, despite his lack of playing time at Milan – just two starts so far this season – and at Chelsea before that, Shevchenko's place in the Ukraine side has remained largely unchallenged. That is understandable, for with 39 international goals he is, by some distance, their top international goalscorer, but there have been indications this week that his position is no longer guaranteed.

"Unfortunately it's happened that Shevchenko has not appeared very often on the pitch this season," said the Ukraine coach, Oleksiy Mykhailychenko. "But he has great experience, a great desire to play and, I'm sure, a sporting rage.

"It will be much easier for the young players we are bringing in to develop if he is alongside them. These are not empty words that the team must be formed of an alloy of youth and experience. It is very difficult to achieve results with only young players or experienced players, so we're trying to create an alloy that will allow each to influence the other positively."

With Artem Kravets, the talented young Dynamo Kiev forward, currently injured, Mykhailychenko's options are more limited than they might have been. It is probable that Ukraine will start with a lone forward, and it would be contentious if the claims of Andriy Voronin, who has scored seven goals in his past seven games for Hertha Berlin, were overlooked for somebody who has barely featured this season.

There is a possibility that a second, deep-lying, striker could be included as well as the playmaker Oleksandr Aliev, and Shevchenko has fulfilled that role in the past, but again the argument is that Dynamo Kiev's Artem Milevskyi is the man in form.

Shevchenko was left out for the home game against Belarus, but dropping him now against England would be a seismic decision, and it may be that Mykhailychenko takes the more diplomatic route and works out a way to include him.

Shevchenko himself was unusually brusque when the issue of his lack of playing time was raised this week, which many have taken as evidence of his own frustrated awareness that the sands of time are running out on his career.

"Once again these questions!" Shevchenko said. "For me such things have never influenced my form for the national team. I hope it's the same this time."

He does, in fairness, have a point, for even in his worst days at Chelsea his form for Ukraine was unwavering. His apologists, and there are many, point out that he has scored half of Ukraine's four goals so far in qualifying, including the vital late penalty after coming off the bench in that game against Belarus. Against Croatia in October, though, Shevchenko was poor and, while the 0-0 draw was widely perceived as a positive result, there was also a perception that, had the forward line functioned as well as the defence, it might have been better.

Like Beckham, his desire to carry on his international career cannot be doubted, and it is clear he wants to give English fans a glimpse of what might have been at Chelsea. "England are one of the best teams in the word," Shevchenko said. "They have very strong players, real stars, and therefore we must meet them with collective play and commitment.

"Everybody has to play not at 100 per cent but at 150 per cent of their ability. A player who dreams of his best match should dream of doing it at Wembley. The atmosphere is really impressive, and for good footballers that is an advantage."

And Beckham? "We didn't discuss the game," Shevchenko added, "but we get on well and before leaving to catch our flights we arranged to meet up in London. He's playing really well at the moment."

And that, of course, is the biggest difference between them right now.

Probable team (4-2-3-1): Pyatov (Shakhtar Donetsk); Yarmash (Vorskla Poltava), Mykhalyk (Dynamo Kiev), Chyhrynskyi (Shakhtar), Shevchuk (Shakhtar); Tymoshchuk (Zenit St Petersburg), Levchenko (Groningen); Rotan (Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk), Shevchenko (Milan), Aliev (Dynamo); Voronin (Hertha Berlin).

Wednesday's games

Group three: Northern Ireland v Slovenia (7.45pm, Sky Sports 3)

After yesterday's outstanding win over Poland, Nigel Worthington's team will be in good heart to reverse an away defeat in Slovenia suffered last October when they conceded twice in the last 10 minutes. They will then have only one home game left, against Slovakia, plus tough away trips to Poland and the Czech Republic.

Group four: Wales v Germany (7.45pm, Sky Sports 1)

Unlucky away defeats to Germany and Russia, the two powerhouses in this section, hampered a young Welsh squad even before the shocker against Finland. Now they need a repeat of the famous Cardiff victories over the Germans in 1991 and 2002 – a huge ask.

Group six: England v Ukraine (8pm, ITV1)

No matches in this section yesterday, so England retain a five-point lead over Croatia. Third-placed Ukraine, the only group opponents they have not yet met, have so far beaten Belarus with a last-minute penalty, won in Kazakhstan and drawn at home to Croatia.

Group eight: Italy v Republic of Ireland (7.50pm)

Overshadowed by the oval ball in Ireland recently, Giovanni Trapattoni's squad will be heroes again if they can achieve a result in Bari. The Irish have made a steady start to their campaign and will be popular visitors since Trapattoni and his assistants – Marco Tardelli and Liam Brady – are all revered figures in Italy.

Group nine: Scotland v Iceland (8pm, Sky Sports 2)

Hoping to chase Holland home in second place, the injury-plagued Scots must complete a double over Iceland, after holding on with 10 men in Reykjavik to win 2-1. Otherwise Chris Iwelumo will go to his grave cursing the miss at home to bottom side Norway.

Steve Tongue

Ukraine football factsheet

1 The Ukraine Football Federation were founded in 1991 after the country became independent of the Soviet Union.

2 In their first competitive international, Ukraine lost at home to Lithuania.

3 At the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Ukraine reached the quarter-finals. In the last 16 they beat Switzerland in a penalty shoot-out, the opposition becoming the first team in World Cups not to score any spot-kicks.

But in the last eight they lost 3-0 to the eventual winners, Italy.

4 Former Chelsea striker Andriy Shevchenko is still in the squad but Sergei Rebrov (pictured left), who played 77 Premier League games for Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham (scoring just 11 goals), no longer figures.

5 A Ukrainian Footballer of the Year has been named since 1969 and the striker Oleg Blokhin, of Dynamo Kiev, won the award a staggering nine times in 10 seasons from 1972 to 1981.

6 Blokhin was part of the great Dynamo Kiev team – under the guidance of the lugubrious manager Valeri Lobanovski – who won the Cup-Winners' Cup in 1975 and 1986.

7 When Lobanovski, who also coached the USSR and Ukraine, died in 2002, he was given a state funeral.

8 Dynamo Kiev, 12 points clear with nine games left, are on course to win their 13th title in the 18 seasons since independence.

9 One team in the Ukrainian League has been known since 2001 as Arsenal Kiev (previously CSKA) and are now owned by the mayor of Kiev, Leonid Chernovetskyi.

10 Ukraine will jointly host Euro 2012 with Poland, although the Poles are involved in a long-running battle with Uefa about their suitability to stage the tournament. Ukraine will use grounds in Kiev, Donetsk, Lvov and Dnipropetrovsk.

Steve Tongue

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