World Cup play-off semi-final: Scotland v Ukraine – what
|Venue: Hampden Park, Glasgow Date: Wednesday, 1 June Time: 19:45 BST|
|Coverage: Listen to live commentary on Sportsound, follow live text updates on the BBC Sport website & app, and watch highlights on Sportscene|
It would have taken a cold heart not to be moved by the sight of Roman Yaremchuk struggling to keep himself together as he came on to the pitch with his Benfica team easing to a win against Vitoria Guimaraes in the Portuguese Primeira Liga in late February.
The Ukraine striker was given a standing ovation when he made a substitute appearance just after the hour mark. His team-mate, Jan Vertonghen, handed him the captain’s armband. There were tears in his eyes, his bottom lip quivering.
Three days earlier, his country had been invaded. His friends and family back home were at war.
“My friends fight in Ukraine, my people fight in Ukraine and I need to fight here,” the forward said after the match. “I cannot fight there, but I can fight here on the pitch.”
And it is with that spirit that Yaremchuk and his team-mates will face Scotland in Wednesday’s World Cup play-off semi-final.
How ready are this Ukraine squad?
With the invasion came the abandonment of domestic football in Ukraine, which had been in its annual winter shutdown at the time.
The league season was officially terminated in late April after 18 games with the big two, league leaders Shakhtar Donetsk and defending champions Dynamo Kyiv, jostling for the title. It is a title that will never be awarded.
Around half of Oleksandr Petrakov’s squad play for the big two, with a further two at Dnipro. It was an obvious problem for the Ukraine head coach as he targeted the game at Hampden.
After the home-based players were given special dispensation to leave the country to train with their clubs, they then set up camp in Brdo, near the Slovenian capital Ljubljana.
They have remained there as a group since the start of May, with three friendlies played against club sides in Germany, Italy and Croatia, most notably a 2-1 win over Borussia Moenchengladbach.
Those players have slowly been joined by others who play elsewhere in Europe, including Yaremchuk, Everton left-back Vitaliy Mykolenko, Manchester City midfielder Oleksandr Zinchenko, winger Andriy Yarmolenko, who has just left West Ham United, and Club Brugge defender Eduard Sobol.
At the weekend, the Ukraine squad held what they described as a “sparring match” with one team playing in the “style of the Scottish national team”.
They then spent Saturday evening watching the Champions League final, cheering on their goalkeeper Andriy Lunin’s Real Madrid and keeping a close eye on Scotland captain Andy Robertson. Thibaut Courtois’ understudy Lunin will be the last to arrive with the group before their trip to Glasgow.
With so many having been without competitive action since December, it could be seen as an advantage for the Scots and experienced Shakhtar goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov admits to a bit of fatigue among those who have been training. However, they insist they are ready.
Just how good are they?
While Scotland try to reach back-to-back major finals for the first time since 1998, the Ukrainians have been regular qualifiers in recent years, making their big tournament debut at the World Cup in 2006 and recently reeling off three successive European Championship appearances.
Indeed, they were quarter-finalists at Euro 2020 before a Luke Shaw and Harry Kane-inspired England thrashed them 4-0 in Rome.
Some players seem made for international football and Yarmolenko is one of them. The 32-year-old has scored 44 times in his 106 caps.
One of the reasons Manchester City have been celebrating another title victory was Zinchenko. A half-time substitute on a dramatic final day, the 25-year-old helped them turn things back their way with a superb 45-minute performance. He’s an obvious dangerman.
Shakhtar’s Taras Stepanenko tends to anchor the midfield with the likes of Zinchenko, Atalanta’s Ruslan Malinovskyi and Dynamo Kyiv’s Mykola Shaparenko given more freedom to support the front three of Yarmolenko, Kyiv’s Viktor Tsygankov and Yaremchuk, who will likely lead the line at Hampden.
Ukraine finished second to France in their qualification group but did not lose a single game, with Kyiv’s Serhiy Sydorchuk scoring their equaliser in Saint Denis against the World Cup holders and his club-mate, Shaparenko, had them ahead against the French in the Ukrainian capital later in the campaign. Both matches ended 1-1.
Having done the seemingly hard bit, they won just two of their eight matches, drawing the other six, including twice to bottom side Kazakhstan.
However, they have threats all over the pitch and will be a tough nut to crack.
What about the emotional aspect?
Last week, the ‘Blue and Yellow’ players were visited by around 150 displaced Ukrainian children who presented them with drawings and paintings.
They watched the squad train, but it was a reminder that, as important a match as this is, it is only a game of football.
“We know that our compatriots really want to return home, but in Ukraine it is still dangerous, especially for children and women,” coach Petrakov said from their Slovenian base.
“So I want to wish our Ukrainians patience. We believe in our armed forces that will bring peace back to our land. We are going to play in Glasgow and I can assure you, the guys will do everything to get to the World Cup.”
Quite what the future holds for Ukraine as a country is uncertain.
However, for its football team and the many willing them to reach the Qatar finals at the end of the most traumatic of years, their 2022 ambition on the pitch could not be clearer.