England's World Cup opponents at Wembley will miss their old guard as Ukraine look to the future
A star has gone out and a new age must begin. For a long time the question with Ukraine was whether Andriy Shevchenko was still worth his place in the side; now that he has retired, there is a realisation of what an almighty gap there is to fill. For 17 years, Shevchenko was an all but permanent feature of Ukraine's national team, winning 111 caps, scoring a national record 48 goals and becoming a totemic presence.
Although he initially announced he would be moving into politics, Shevchenko will line up alongside Dmitry Vakhnenko for Ukraine next month in the World Amateur Team Golf Championship and is apparently targeting a place at the 2016 Olympics. While he decides where his future lies, Ukraine begin adapting to the post-Shevchenko era, which ended, of course, with a 1-0 defeat to England in Donetsk at this summer's European Championship.
That game remains a sore point for Ukraine. Had an assistant referee seen that Marko Devic's effort had crossed the line before John Terry cleared it (although Devic had been offside in the buildup), Ukraine would have levelled, an incident that left the national coach, Oleh Blokhin, so enraged that he asked a Ukrainian journalist to join him in the car park for a "man-talk" in the post-match press conference. Blokhin's insistence that the defeat does not still rankle rings a little hollow. "If we could have beaten England I'm sure we'd have become stronger and stronger with every game," he said. "Concerning the game with England during the Euros ... First of all our goal was ruled out. The referee made two mistakes. Of course it hurt us but it's history."
It is not just on the pitch that Shevchenko will be missed at Wembley on Tuesday, as Blokhin acknowledged. "Sheva was a natural-born leader and we will need some time to readjusting ourselves without him," he said. The issue of leadership is a pressing one. It is not just Shevchenko who has retired. The goalkeeper Oleksandr Shovkovskyi and the forward Andriy Voronin have also brought an end to their international careers and with the centre-back Dmytro Chyhrynskyi's injury woes continuing, this is a Ukraine team severely lacking in experience.
Not that breaking down hierarchies, however implicit they may have been, is necessarily a problem. "There is a group of very talented young players in the team," said the 25-year-old centre-back Evhen Khacheridi. "Our strongest feature at the moment is our motivation and desire to play for the national colours. I don't think it's important to find a new leader and I don't think leadership is really an issue. The most important thing is the team unity and confidence and I'm sure we have that."
And there is, of course, still Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, at the back of midfield, occasionally strolling forward for a long-range drive on goal. "You know, before the game with England I've said to my young players that one of them must be a leader of the team," Blokhin said. "They are adults and it's time for them to acquire leader's virtues. But it is not possible to be artificial leader. It must come naturally. It couldn't be Shevchenko, Voronin or Tymoshchuk forever."
Blokhin has varied his tactical approach a lot since returning to the national team last year, before settling on a fairly standard 4-4-2 for the Euros and he stuck with that approach in the one friendly Ukraine have played since the end of the tournament, a goalless draw against the Czech Republic last month. Devic, a 28-year-old born in Serbia but naturalised in 2008, looks like being the new leader of the line, at least in the short term. He would probably categorise himself as a second striker but his awkward, angular physique means he can seem like a target man, even though he has at times played on the wing.
It seems likely that Roman Zozulya, a skilful but far from prolific 22 year old from Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, will partner him but if Ukraine are to unsettle England, their main threat is likely to come from wide. For all Shevchenko's heroics against Sweden, the Euros were ultimately a disappointment for Ukraine, with the one real positive being the form of their wide men, Evhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko. Both are 22, as is Denys Garmash, who played against England in the European Under-19 final in 2009 and is likely to start alongside Tymoshchuk in the middle.
Khacheridi, meanwhile, will probably be partnered by Yaroslav Rakitskiy in central defence. He seemed relieved that Wayne Rooney, who scored England's winner in Donetsk, will not be playing, but warned against the pressure England will put Ukraine under. "As a defender I can say that it's always difficult to play against England," he said. "The team plays physically strong football and makes a lot of tackles."
For a young Ukraine side, it is all part of the learning process.