It did not always look like it would go to plan but eventually co-hosts Ukraine enjoyed the perfect start to their Euro 2012 campaign.
Andriy Shevchenko’s hero status in the country was never in doubt, but he added a new chapter to the legend – scoring twice to help Oleg Blokhin’s side come from behind to claim three points.
It had seemed as though Zlatan Ibrahimovic would claim the headlines when the AC Milan forward prodded home to give Sweden the lead early in the second half. But two bullet headers from Shevchenko turned the game on its head. We take a look at some of the big stories of the evening.
The atmosphere in Kiev was electric well before kick-off – this was clearly a country that had been waiting for this moment a long time. However, the players seemed weighed down by the pressure in the early stages. And yet, while Poland started brightly before wilting in front of their own fans on the opening day, Ukraine instead came alive when going a goal down after the break. It seemed to spark the co-hosts to life and they were a different side after Shevchenko’s goals – perhaps inspired by the knowledge that their iconic forward had delivered. Equally, when Shevchenko departed to a rousing reception, his team-mates lost a little composure and nervously survived before the final whistle saw scenes of unbridled joy.
Shevchenko is one of the finest forwards of his generation. He is among the top 10 goalscorers in the history of European football and was a fixture among the Ballon D’Or nominations for the best part of a decade. But it has to be said – it was not this decade. There can be no denying the pace has gone but the 35-year-old had a reason to keep battling on – a European Championship in his homeland. It would have been easy to retire and take the plaudits but Shevchenko ploughed on despite doubts over form and fitness. This night was his reward as he twice stole a yard on his defender to grab a pair of priceless goals for his country.
The Scandinavian cliches are usually out in force come major tournaments – we know they will be organised, workmanlike, hard-working etc. This Sweden side appears anything but. There is obvious quality in the form of Ibrahimovic and the midfield guile of Kim Kallstrom but it was the inability to do the basics at the back that cost Erik Hamren’s men. It would be nice to wax lyrical about Shevchenko’s astonishing movement for the goals – perhaps a double shimmy to elude the centre-back – but in truth the first was a regulation run across the box that should have been tracked by Olof Mellberg, while Ibrahimovic switched off for the winner. Much has been made of how Sweden are more than just a functional outfit. On this showing, they would do well to focus on a little old-fashioned discipline.
Ibra delivers in defeat
Ibrahimovic remains a player who divides opinion, which is a little surprising given his record. It would appear to owe as much to his manner as his end product. The 30-year-old forward netted 35 goals for AC Milan last season and despite his critics he has produced for Sweden, too. He has had to adapt to a slightly deeper role with his country in order to ensure Hamren gets his best player involved in the game. It worked well enough as Ibrahimovic scored the opener to become only the fifth player to score in three European Championships. He even created an opening with a delicious flick to put Johan Elmander through in the final minute but the Galatasaray forward blazed over wildly.
Ukraine goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov looked far from a safe pair of hands for the co-hosts. Experienced first-choice custodian Oleksandr Shovkovsky, who has 92 caps, is ruled out with a shoulder injury, while Andriy Dykan and Oleksandr Rybka also miss out through injury and suspension, respectively, leaving Ukraine with few options between the sticks. Pyatov took the gloves as expected against the Swedes but looked less than assured, particularly in a shaky first half, making an unconvincing punched clearance of an Ibrahimovic effort before spilling a Markus Rosenberg shot. The goalkeeper seemed to grow in confidence after the break.
Yarmolenko makes his mark
The game marked young winger Andriy Yarmolenko’s first at a major tournament but the 22-year-old had no trouble stepping up to the challenge. The Dynamo Kiev man lived up to his billing as Ukraine’s hottest football prospect as he tore into the Swedish defence, causing problems with his pace and skill out wide. The youngster crowned his Euro bow with an assist, swinging in a well-placed cross to allow Shevchenko to nod home the co-hosts’ equaliser, having previously set up the veteran striker with a gilt-edged chance he failed to convert in the first half.
England in the lion’s den
It will be played in Donetsk not Kiev but England will not be looking forward to taking on Ukraine in front of their own fans. Blokhin’s men were underdogs in this group and Roy Hodgson may have secretly hoped the co-hosts would have no chance of qualifying by the time of the final game. As it is, Ukraine could need to get a result on June 19th in order to reach the quarter-finals. That will be a concern because the impact of the crowd was significant in this game, particularly after Ukraine’s equaliser.