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Can Shevchenko be replaced?

June 20, 2012


Can Shevchenko be replaced?
Retired Ukranian striker Andriy Shevchenko.- Photo by AFP

Ukrainians will remember Euro 2012 more for the thousands of fans filling hotels and bars than their national team's performances, but, despite an early exit, there is cause for optimism - if they can find a goal scorer.

A chapter closed after Tuesday's defeat at the Donbass Arena, with Ukraine's former European Player of the Year Andriy Shevchenko announcing his retirement from international football after a knee injury ruined his chance of upsetting England.

Shevchenko has been the face of post-Soviet Ukrainian football, a source of national pride and for once the over-used phrase 'ambassador' is fitting for a man who has always tried to present his country to the rest of the world in a positive way without ever veering close to boorish nationalism.

His 48 goals in 111 appearances will be hard to replace as will his presence in the dressing room, where his understated approach has worked well alongside the almost gruff bluntness of Coach Oleg Blokhin.

The 35-year-old former AC Milan and Chelsea striker has quietly passed on his experience and advice to younger players who ran the risk of being overawed by the unprecedented national attention on them at this tournament.

Now it falls to a younger generation and both Shevchenko and Blokhin believe Ukraine have the quality available to make sure they are back at future tournaments.

“I am glad for our young players who played well,” said Shevchenko. “This team has a bright future”.

Ukraine recovered to beat Sweden 2-1 on a memorable night in Kiev, thanks to Shevchenko's double, and pushed France hard before fading after halftime and losing 2-0.

They went on to dominate England for 45 minutes in their final Group D game with a draw being a fairer result due to a controversially disallowed goal which had clearly crossed the goal-line, leading Ukraine out of the championship in much the same fashion as their opposition, England, were eliminated in the 2010 Fifa World Cup.

In their last two games in Donetsk, where Ukraine have yet to win in seven games, Blokhin's team were just missing a killer touch near goal - a final pass or a lethal finish.

Core players from the squad are in their early twenties, including left back Evhen Selin, central defenders Evhen Khacheridi and Yaroslav Rakitskiy, midfielders Denys Garmash and Evhen Konoplyanka, leading to positive speculation of the future for the team.

“There are a group of young players there who will stay in this team,” said Blokhin, who now must focus on the World Cup qualifiers which start in September.

Left midfielder Konoplyanka, 22, has been the player who has impressed most - his vision, touch and imagination will surely have attracted the attention of richer clubs than his current team Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk.

With Shevchenko gone and Andriy Voronin, who turns 33 next month, also quitting the national team, the key task for Blokhin is to find an international quality goal scorer.

The 22-year-old Andriy Yarmolenko was used in a wide role in this tournament and showed a good knack of getting free of his marker and into dangerous positions but he must develop a more clinical approach in the box to be a solution at centre forward.

Unfortunately for Blokhin, the Ukrainian league does not offer much in the way of young goal scoring talent forcing their way in to the national team.

Prior to the finals the Ukraine coach highlighted the weakness noting that the top goal scorer in the league, Ukraine squad member Evhen Seleznyov, had managed only 14 goals.

“Excuse me, but this level is very low for our championship.

“If a forward can't create a situation where he's able to poke the ball home, then he's not a forward for me.

With many foreign imports playing in attack, Blokhin said it was hard for players to get enough top-flight experience.

“It's difficult even to find a forward playing permanently for his club.”

England will be rivals again in World Cup qualifying, along with neighbors and Euro 2012 co-hosts Poland and Montenegro.

Ukraine should be in a position to challenge in that group but finding a striker from somewhere would certainly help.