Yaremchuk strikes late to complete Ukraine’s comeback win over Slovakia

This result ensures both Ukraine and Slovakia will qualify for the last 16 if they win their final group games next week

Ukraine's forward Roman Yaremchuk scores his team's second goal past Slovakia's goalkeeper Martin Dubravka. Photograph: Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images
Group E: Slovakia 1 Ukraine 2

Roman Yaremchuk is a big man but one blessed with a remarkable deftness of touch. Mykola Shaparenko’s ball into him after 80 minutes seemed neither one thing nor the other; too high to take in his stride, too low to head. But Yaremchuk cushioned it with an upward thrust of his leg and, in one movement, nudged it past Martin Dubravka. The shot barely had enough pace to get over the line, but it had enough, and Ukraine had a win that at half-time had seemed very unlikely.

The comeback means that both Ukraine and Slovakia will qualify for the last 16 if they win their final group games next week. But bright and engaging as the game was, it was inevitably overshadowed by the political context. Even beyond Kylian Mbappé and Marcus Thuram and their explicit appeals against the Rassemblement National in France, politics has lingered just below the surface of this tournament.

There were the disgraceful chants directed at Serbs by Albania and Croatia fans in Hamburg; the Kosovan journalist banned for making an eagle gesture at Serbian fans who were abusing him; English and Serbian fans booing each others’ anthems at least in part as a consequence of the Nato bombing of Belgrade; Hungarian fans with their irredentist power ballads and songs now associated with the German far right; Austrian fans booing la Marseillaise in recognition that it was originally the war song of the Army of the Rhine in the War of the First Coalition in 1792 … good luck to the Spain goalkeeper Unai Simón and his suggestion everybody just stick to football.

But when the draw was made no game seemed as politically charged as this one. For Ukraine, of course, every game, every opportunity to remind people of their continued existence and the ongoing suffering of their country, is vital as the war against the Russian invasion goes on. Slovakia had initially supported Ukraine, offering Kyiv use of its air force. But last year the nationalist Robert Fico was named prime minister, vowing to reduce aid to its eastern neighbour while pursuing a policy of greater alignment with Hungary, whose prime minister Viktor Orban has been the most overtly pro-Vladimir Putin voice among EU leaders.

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Fico’s ally, Peter Pellegrini was elected as president in April. But then last month, Fico was shot twice at close range while meeting the public in Handlova, about 120 miles north-east of the capital Bratislava. Police arrested Juraj Cintula, a 71-year-old poet, who has spoken openly of his opposition to Fico’s attempts to curtail the freedom of the press, to downgrade anti-corruption bodies and to reduce support for Ukraine. Fico is recovering and has unsurprisingly sought to make political capital out of the incident, condemning the violence of the left and the EU’s inability to accommodate divergent opinions, while the deputy prime minister and defence minister Robert Kalinak serves as interim prime minister.

Relations in the stadium seemed relatively cordial, the game engaging enough to prevent the mind from wandering too much to foreign policy considerations. Ukraine’s coach Serhiy Rebrov made four changes to the side that had lost 3-0 to Romania, leaving out his captain Taras Stepanenko and the Real Madrid goalkeeper Andriy Lunin. Within the opening quarter of an hour, his replacement in goal, Benfica’s Anatoliy Trubin, had made three fine saves, which was good in the sense in vindicating Rebrov’s decision, but bad in what it said about Slovakia’s early domination.

This is not the Slovakia to which the world has become accustomed, the dull grinders of the last two Euros whose games often felt like cruel tests of endurance. This iteration, under the former coffee salesman Francesco Calzona, is crisp, lively and complex with distinct fruity notes. Inevitably, they press with gusto. Buoyed by their opening win over Belgium, Slovakia took the lead after 17 minutes with a goal that already felt overdue, Lukas Haraslin left untended from a throw-in to cross for Ivan Schranz, who had got the only goal against Belgium, to pull away from Oleksandr Zinchenko and nod in.

That, at last, woke Ukraine up. Oleksandr Tymchyk hit a post with a low angled shot before half-time and they levelled nine minutes into the second half as Shaparenko, one of the changes, swept in a Zinchenko cross. Mykhailo Mudryk also hit a post with a shot Dubravka boldly left as Ukraine counter-attacked with zest and incisiveness. Slovakia will wonder how they let the game slip after their early dominance but, by the time Yaremchuk got the winner, it had come to seem probable.

- Guardian