Shevchenko restores Ukraine’s equilibrium

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

As a fit Ukrainian central defender, Andriy Rusol is a rare breed in Germany this summer. But he wasted no time in putting his country’s World Cup bandwagon back on course with this 4-0 win over Saudi Arabia on Monday at this most northerly of the venues.

Less than four minutes had gone when the man from Dnipropetrovsk closed in on a Maksym Kalinichenko corner – one of five in the first dozen minutes. The ball cannoned off his right knee and looped into the net through the legs of Mabrouk Zaid, latest in a rich vein of comical Saudi goalkeepers.

From that moment Andriy Shevchenko and his team-mates must have known it would be their day, just as surely as they knew that it wasn’t during their opening-match hiding – also 4-0 – at the hands of Spain. 

The early goal dissolved any residual tension and paved the way for a free-flowing performance in the best Dynamo tradition. Throughout the first half, Serhiy Rebrov, back at the Kiev club and back in coach Oleg Blokhin’s team as one of four changes from the Spain match, combined fluently with the rest of the Ukraine front six – Shevchenko, Kalinichenko, Andriy Voronin, Oleg Gusev and Graham Poll. An inadvertent deflection off the English referee almost created a 17th-minute opening for Chelsea’s new £30m man, but the final ball from Kalinichenko just eluded him.

It was already looking as if Ukraine might cash in on the weak opposition to repair their ravaged goal difference and in the 36th minute Rebrov doubled their advantage with a speculative snap-shot from long-range. It was an impressive enough strike, but not as impressive as the wretched Zaid, who appeared to stumble and failed to get airborne at all, made it appear.

When Shevchenko scored with a header in the first minute of the second half, it looked as though a rout of 2002 proportions, when the Germans put eight past them, might be on the cards for the outclassed Saudis. But they rolled up their sleeves, kept plugging away and even fashioned some half-chances of their own as the Ukrainians took their foot off the accelerator. Even so, Kalinichenko nearly added a fourth with an exquisite 66th-minute strike on to the top of the crossbar.

The good news for Ukraine was that Shevchenko, who played 85 minutes and eventually did lay on a fourth for man-of-the-match Kalinichenko, moved sweetly throughout and appears to be over his injury, as Ukraine football supremo Grygori Surkis said before the match that he was.

The bad news was that the patched-up defence let too many balls bobble around their penalty area in the opening 20 minutes. A better team would have punished them.

Ukraine now face Roger Lemerre’s Tunisia in Berlin in what may be a winner-takes-all sudden-death qualifier. The burning question, though, from Group H is: ‘How many goals are Luís Aragones’s Spanish team, who were good enough to blow Ukraine away, going to clock up against this lot in Kaiserslautern on Friday?’ There is a glimmer of light: it is an afternoon kick-off. The heat may help prevent the shredding of Arabian dignity.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.