After a night that they will never forget, Ukraine’s players will waste little time reflecting on the emotions and exhilaration generated by their 3-1 win over Scotland at Hampden Park on Wednesday as a World Cup decider against Wales looms.
A squad which had not played together since Russia’s conflict with their country in February, now has just three days to get ready to go all out again on Sunday in Cardiff, with a place in November’s World Cup finals the prize.
Midfielder Oleksandr Zinchenko, one of several outstanding performers against the Scots, has no doubts that the team will be ready to take on a Wales side looking to secure their first World Cup finals appearance since 1958.
“There is no time to rejoice. It’s time to recover. Each of us is a professional who needs to know what he needs to do for this,” said the Manchester City player.
“However, we all understand that the game with Wales will no longer be about physical condition or tactics — it will be a game of survival. Everyone will fight to the end and give their all, because we will play for our country,” he added.
If the celebrations from the Ukraine fans in the stadium on Wednesday, over 2,000 of them drawn from around the UK and even as far away as Australia, were not enough of a reminder of what the victory meant to the war-ravaged nation, the messages they received after the match made it abundantly clear. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy posted a picture of the team celebrating on the Telegram app, accompanied by a brief message: “Sometimes you don’t need a lot of words! Just pride. They went out, fought, persevered and won. Because they are Ukrainians!”
But these playoffs are not just about returning to the field as a symbol of the country’s resistance — Ukraine are chasing the dream of a place in the World Cup finals for only the second time since the country’s independence in 1991.
“This victory is for all Ukrainians, for those who are now at the forefront. We are with them. But so far we have done 50% of the task. The most important thing is the next match,” said midfielder Ruslan Malinovsky.
Clearly, Ukraine are a team fuelled by deep patriotism and the burning sense of injustice and anger at Russia’s conflict, which Moscow calls a ‘special operation’, but as the Scots learnt to their cost, it is not just passion that they bring to the field.
Scotland were unbeaten in 12 home games at Hampden Park, outside of last year’s European Championship, coming into the game but were outclassed across the field with Ukraine’s sweeping attacks combining smart movement with precise passing.
Scotland coach Steve Clarke conceded they had been beaten by a better team but Ukraine will be aware that Wales will present a sterner test.
“Every game for us now is like a final. We have one more and we need to win it — we need to take it or this won’t mean anything,” said Zinchenko.
Ukraine coach Oleksandr Petrakov, who had admitted to being too emotionally drained to analyse the match, was asked how his team will be able to recover for another push towards a place in Qatar and was bluntly practical in his response.
“We will depart for Cardiff. In the evening we train in two groups. Then there will be training, preparation, the guys will recover,” he said.
Petrakov and his players have been wary of over-stating the importance of their achievement, given the life and death struggles and daily horrors facing Ukrainians.
“I told the guys before going out on the field that we play football for ordinary people, for our country, for the fans, for the victims,” said Petrakov.
“We took a small step — reached the playoff final. Ahead — the game with Wales. All I can say is that we will do everything in our power.”
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