Group D Ukraine v France
UKRAINE COACH Oleg Blokhin insists tonight’s opponents France and Group D rivals England remain the favourites to qualify for the quarter-finals despite the co-host’s stunning start to the competition.
Having come from behind to beat Sweden 2-1 thanks to Andriy Shevcheko’s memorable double, Ukraine are two points clear at the top after the first round of matches.
France, unbeaten in 22 games, pose an entirely different prospect while Blokhin also expects Roy Hodgson’s side to be their main competition for a top-two place.
“I think England and France are the favourites in the group,” he said.
“If [Laurent] Blanc said France are an outsider he did not mean it. They have great young players.
“I said after Sweden we haven’t achieved anything yet. My main task is to give strength to the players and make it possible that we get through the group stage.”
Blokhin believes the group is too tight to expect Blanc’s side to come out all guns blazing even after their 1-1 draw with England.
“The standings will not force France to play attacking football,” he added. “Even if they lose, they still have a chance to qualify. I don’t think they will play particularly attacking football against us.
“The midfielders and strikers will always be a big threat though. Samir Nasri was the best player against England.”
Midfielder Sergiy Nazarenko insists the players have already moved on from their opening day victory. “We did not feel the euphoria because the supporters felt it,” he said.
“We resumed training and forgot about the game. We have two games to play and understand winning one game is not enough to qualify.”
Blanc hopes increased expectation on the co-hosts will play into France’s hands but knows they can also draw strength from their fervent support.
“It can be an advantage to play at home but it can be a disadvantage too,” he said.
“Ukraine have started very well and they have already played under a lot of pressure. There will be even more pressure on the second game and sometimes pressure can hinder people but sometimes they can rise to the occasion.“
Despite France’s long unbeaten run they have set a national record of final tournament games without a win, eclipsing a sequence of seven set between 1960 and 1978.
Blanc has painful memories of Andriy Shevchenko on the pitch but is refusing to panic.
I know Shevchenko well, I played against him and he was difficult to mark, said Blanc, who faced Sheva wearing the Inter Milan shirt when the Ukrainian was at AC Milan.
“I was not always happy at the end of the games. He is in great form, but he needs a bit of space to show it.”
In Shevchenko, Ukraine have a world-class player and France must show they have at least one too, according to Blanc.
“Great players are always there on big occasions. If we have great players, they will have to prove it tomorrow because we must win.
Just like Blokhin, Blanc said he did not know yet what his starting line-up would be, although he hinted Yann M’Vila could start after missing the first game through injury.
“Yann M’Vila is an important player in our system. Maybe the rest he had gave him a bit of freshness and all these parameters will be taken into account as to whether he will start.”
Should M’Vila be selected, Alou Diarra, would drop to the bench.
Referee: Bjorn Kuipers (Netherlands)
Substitutes from: Goryainov, Koval; Butko, Kucher, Rakitskiy, Shevchuk; Aliyev, Garmash, Gusev, Konoplyanka, Rotan; Devic, Milevskiy, Seleznyov.
Coach: Oleg Blokhin
Substitutes from: Carrasso, Mandanda; Clichy, Koscielny, Reveillere; Diarra, Martin, Matuidi, Ben Arfa, Giroud, Menez.
Coach: Laurent Blanc.