The country's new coach may have worked with the legendary Colonel, Lobanovskyi, but he has a thoroughly modern outlook
For a long time football in Ukraine has been backward looking but that is beginning to change at last. For the first decade after Soviet fragmentation everything revolved round Valeriy Lobanovskyi and for the decade after his death everything revolved round Andriy Shevchenko, whom Lobanovskyi had hailed as being closest to his ideal of the "universal player" and who revered the Colonel and his ideas.
Lobanovskyi's genius had been to keep evolving. He stayed at the top of the game for 35 years because of his ability to adapt but his legacy was stasis. Everything came back to his way of doing things; his philosophy became a religion that had to be obeyed.
The influence of Lobanovskyi is staggering. In the 21 years since Ukraine joined Uefa they have had nine different coaches (excluding caretakers). One was Lobanovskyi. Of the other eight six played for or coached with him and the other two, Viktor Prokopenko and Myron Markevich, lasted less than a year each. For 95% of Ukraine's existence the football team has been coached by a Lobanovskyian.
The result, by the time of Oleh Blokhin's second stint in charge, was an authoritarian coach whose side played old-fashioned, crabby football. Two Shevchenko headers against Sweden added a gloss to last year's Euros but the truth is that Ukraine, given the advantage of home support, significantly underperformed in that tournament. Blokhin quit to take charge at Dynamo Kyiv after Ukraine had drawn their opening qualifier at Wembley and the caretaker who replaced him, Andriy Bal, another former Lobanovskyi player, took only a point from a trip to Moldova and a home game against Montenegro.
There was a moment when it seemed that, in seeking a new approach, Ukraine would throw all caution to the wind and turn to Sven-Goran Eriksson (or, far less plausibly, Harry Redknapp) but instead they stuck to traditions and appointed a sixty-something who had played under and then worked alongside Lobanovskyi. Mykhaylo Fomenko, though, is rather different from his predecessors. He may be 64 but his outlook on football is thoroughly modern.
To an extent the poor early form in qualifying had taken the pressure off: nobody expected Fomenko to achieve anything and so he was able to rejuvenate the squad. Shevchenko had retired after the Euros to pursue a career in politics and Fomenko immediately caused a stir by dropping the 32-year-old playmaker Serhiy Nazarenko, who had been regarded as Ukraine's best creative player over the previous year. Significantly the captain, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, who is now 34, remained, his time at Bayern Munich giving him experience of the flexible pressing game Fomenko has imposed. "You rarely see rigid tactical models in football any more," Fomenko said. "We have to change formations many times in a game and anyone who doesn't puts himself at an obvious disadvantage."
The strength of his side is the front four. Marko Devic, an awkward, angular front-man, is 29, while the three who play behind him, Yevhen Konoplyanka, Roman Zozulya and Andriy Yarmolenko, are all 23. Zozulya, who has frequently been compared to Wayne Rooney, is aggressive and good in the air and combines technical ability with a capacity to win back the ball, while the two wingers are not just a threat going forward but disciplined at tracking back, at times forming almost a four-man midfield.
Of the 22 outfielders in the squad nine are under 25 and there is further hope for the future. Four years ago Ukraine won the European Under-19 championship on home soil, beating England 2-0 in the final in Donetsk. Given the fretting about English youth development, there is something of an irony in the fact that the only player from that match likely to start on Tuesday is Kyle Walker. Danny Welbeck, suspended for Tuesday's game, was also in that England side while Andros Townsend is likely to reprise his role on the bench. The only Ukrainian who would be in contention is Denys Harmash, the midfielder who opened the scoring in Donetsk. He, though, is injured. (For all the head-shaking and fretting about the quality of emerging young English players and their lack of playing time at big clubs, what is actually striking about the age profile of this England squad is that only four of the outfield 22 were born between 1984 and 1989).
Fomenko has given his young side belief and they have repaid him with four successive victories. With a home game against Poland and a trip to San Marino to come next month, they know, as England do, that the shape of the task to come will be determined this week. "We have a saying that there is still hope even when it seems that there is none," he said when he was appointed. Tuesday will go a long way to deciding whether the hope he has generated becomes achievement.