‘A game of survival’: Ukraine prepare for final World Cup push in Wales

A team driven by their hearts won with their heads in Scotland to lift their nation’s spirits but know they must finish the job

Along sections of Ukraine’s frontline, more trivial concerns could take hold for an hour or two. When Taras Stepanenko checked his phone after anchoring the midfield masterfully at Hampden Park, one of the first in more than 100 messages was from a close friend who has been serving in the army since Russia invaded.

The soldiers had been able to find a screen and the muscle memory of football fans kicked in again when Callum McGregor briefly gave Scotland hope of a comeback. “He is at a difficult point, fighting every day,” Stepanenko said of his associate. “He told me the army at the border didn’t think the ball had crossed the line.”

By then, Stepanenko and his teammates had made sure the debate was, save for providing valuable escapism, irrelevant. They outclassed Scotland for the vast majority of their World Cup playoff semi-final: the maelstrom of emotions and profound sense of responsibility the squad had been feeling were turned into an advantage, not a burden.

“It’s come from our heart and our soul,” Stepanenko said. “Sometimes you can’t say what you feel. When I heard the anthem of Ukraine I wanted to cry.”

Yet within minutes Ukraine had clicked into a performance that felt cool, considered, lucid, logical. It seemed reasonable to wonder whether they would tear away like headless chickens and burn themselves out; instead they put on a study in control after a scruffy first 10 minutes and it was a reminder, heightened upon glancing down the starting XI’s parent clubs, that these are professionals of exceptional pedigree as well as fierce patriots. Ukraine were driven by their hearts but won with their heads, doing what they knew.

That was certainly evident in the display of Oleksandr Zinchenko, who ran the game and looked every inch a player who grew noticeably in stature towards the end of the domestic season with Manchester City. Alongside him the Atalanta midfielder Ruslan Malinovskyi was intelligent and deft, always a step or two ahead of Scotland’s engine room.

Then there was Stepanenko, who had not played a competitive game since Shakhtar Donetsk won at Oleksandriya on 11 December. The 32-year-old took a heavy whack in each half but he is famously made of strong stuff. “I can’t say I didn’t run or anything like this,” he said. “I felt very good.”

Now Ukraine must do it all again. The sentiment from everyone exiting their dressing room after Wednesday’s game was identically on-message: the importance of giving joy to those back home was huge but, in footballing terms, the win would mean nothing unless it was backed up in Cardiff four days later.

It is a considerable task given Wales, perhaps inferior man for man but exceptionally coached and in fine spirits, will surely offer a more exacting challenge. After Artem Dovbyk ran clear to make absolutely sure of the outcome, half of the team fell to their knees.

It was hard to tell whether the exhaustion was mental, the scale of their achievement having sunk in now victory was confirmed, or physical. Stepanenko was far from alone in lacking match practice: five others in the team that walked out could tell a similar tale. The next 72 hours will be crucial in conditioning them to start afresh.

Artem Dovbyk scores Ukraine’s third goal to seal their victory at Hampden Park.
Artem Dovbyk scores Ukraine’s third goal to seal their victory at Hampden Park. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

“We have four days to recover, I think it’s enough,” said Malinovskyi, who set up Andriy Yarmolenko’s opener with a marvellous 60-yard pass. “The important thing is to be ready mentally. Wales play at home and it is a final; they will push but we must be prepared to play calmly, not force it, and play smartly in that game too.”

In other words, the approach that served them so admirably in Glasgow will do the trick. Malinovskyi, whose Serie A season finished on 21 May, was not surprised to see his domestic-based colleagues compensate for their lack of action. “We had great performances in training,” he said. “We always push and sometimes it even looks like an official game. Everyone goes in with tackles and we even get some injuries.”

Malinovskyi went some way towards explaining Ukraine’s composure when reflecting that, for three months, football has been a way to block everything out. “Since the war started, training and games just gave me those two or three hours to be free in the mind and not think about the situation,” he said. “My parents are [in Ukraine], my brother is there. In the time when I’m on the pitch I don’t think about the war. I just relax and concentrate on my job and what I need to do on the pitch.”

Ruslan Malinovskyi (right) battles with Scotland’s John McGinn.
Ruslan Malinovskyi (right) battles with Scotland’s John McGinn. Photograph: Russell Cheyne/Reuters

There will, however, be no escaping the raised stakes in Cardiff. A World Cup place would offer a glimmer of light, five months down the line, for the country to hang on to during a struggle that shows no sign of ending quickly. Ukraine now know they can master these occasions and the prize is agonisingly close.

Zinchenko, always a powerful orator, pressed home the point that passion will remain a driving force. “We all understand that the game with Wales will no longer be about physical condition or tactics, it will be a game of survival,” he said. “Everyone will fight to the end and give their all, because we will play for our country.”

In practice it will be a mixture: Ukraine had, for example, worked exhaustively in training on how to contest second balls against Scotland and their efforts paid rich dividends. Oleksandr Petrakov’s canny planning during a month-long training camp should not be understated. Now method and motivation must dovetail one more time.

“These are great emotions for our nation,” Stepanenko said. Ukraine hope his brave friends on the frontline have much more to move them on Sunday night.


Nick Ames in Glasgow

The GuardianTramp

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