There they stood with arms raised, thundering in unison with the support their own little piece of Ukraine had seized in Hampden Park. Andriy Shevchenko, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Artem Dovbyk: the god, son and darling of the nation at the head of the lineup.
If the adrenaline had flowed out of their bodies, the corner would have been marshland. Just a few moments earlier, they had secured a place in the first EM quarter-finals. Fans crowded the front row to celebrate, lose themselves, worship, and anoint their newest member of the football king, goalscorer Dovbyk. For Zinchenko, this was his baptism as the Nation’s Hero if he was the golden boy they were looking for.
Ironically, in extra time. The scriptwriters may have used up their best material for the round of 16, but the bald man walking on the pitch leading the security guards to a happy dance as Dovbyk went home didn’t care. His inhibitions (or what to start with) were swept away in the flood of emotions.
There was a 26-man attack in front of the shelter as submarines, doctors and trainers approached as socially as possible. Shevchenko didn’t know what to do. He turned to the bench and waited for others, anyone, to sprint down the stairs and join him. They had already lost it, however, so he and his goalkeeper yelled at each other for the next five seconds to make sure they weren’t in a trance. All around Hampden, yellow bags jumped and linked, while other yellow bags sank deeper into her chair.
– BBC Sports (@BBCSport) June 29, 2021
It hadn’t come. It wasn’t expected. The double bill on Monday, two goal comebacks to scare Spain into extra time and eliminate world champions France on penalties; the hype surrounding the meeting of the two heavyweights England and Germany a few hours earlier at Wembley Stadium. Would you like to pursue this?
It was like a damp primer. Sweden, a functioning team that built their success on solid foundations against Ukraine, which had disappointed so far and qualified fourth and last-best third-place thanks to a single win over North Macedonia. Maybe the group stage elimination should be tougher. Maybe it dilutes the quality. Or how about maybe we all shut up and let soccer get on our nerves and our imaginations like it has for the past 17 days?
(Photo: Andy Buchanan / POOL / AFP via Getty Images)
It was billed as a clash of two styles, but it didn’t play out that way. Which team was the better team was a game that depended on preferences. Sweden attacked more determinedly but Ukraine held the ball for long periods and set the pace at which they were comfortable.
In the group stage, Ukraine had prevailed in their 3-2 loss to the Netherlands, but they looked open while they stood stale against Austria and had their lead out of control in their victory over North Macedonia.
Shevchenko was careful in his selection, leaving out midfielders Vitaliy Mykolenko and Ruslan Malinovskyi when he switched from 4-3-3 to a 5-3-2 system. As the most talented player, Zinchenko is used in midfield by Ukraine to maximize his influence in attack, but here he has been transferred to the left full-back, a more natural position for him at club level.
Meanwhile, Sweden remained faithful to the 4-4-2 form in defense, but were much more fluid and efficient in possession.
A right combination of Mikael Lustig, 34, and Sebastian Larsson, 36, may not seem like that, but their reliability played a role in their structure that should free their talisman Emil Forsberg. Manager Janne Andersson used Lustig in the same way as Brendan Rodgers at Celtic, with the full-back plugging in a three-way chain and compensating for Ludwig Augustinsson’s more advanced position on the opposite side.
It allowed Forsberg to roam inside along with Dejan Kulusevski, who played against Alexander Isak. The trio traded and bonded well on the edge of the box, but much of the game was always decided by which team, made up of largely functional players, could get it to their wizards most often.
Forsberg seemed to be laying yellow brick streets that only he could see as he turned and snaked through the gaps. Ukraine, meanwhile, struggled to get Zinchenko high on the ball, but the system’s advantage began to show in the middle of the first half when they started outnumbering Swedes in the middle of the park, taking advantage of the width of the full-backs.
It was decisive for the opening goal in the 27th minute when Mykola Shaparenko twisted the ball to the right and Yarmolenko flicked a ball against the back post with the outside of his shoe. Then Zinchenko steamed, who shot his shot past Robin Olsen before sprinting away like a hypnotized Pikachu with an ashen face and dead eyes.
Sweden had their chances but Kulusevski turned a shot he should have hit and Forsberg was caught under a cross. The goal seemed to awaken a new urgency, and Forsberg began to move more centrally to connect with Kulusevski and Isak. The equalizer came with less precision, but style was superfluous at the time. Forsberg saw his shot deflected over Georgiy Bushchan.
The second half came to life early on when Serhiy Sydorchuk glanced at the goalkeeper from inside the box, but his shot hit the outside of the post.
A wake up call? Sweden went to the other side with Isak and Forsberg, as if he had had enough of fooling around, whipped the ball into the far corner. It jumped off the base of the post and into safety.
A stalemate was never inevitable for two cautious teams, but the red card to Marcus Danielson in the 98th minute put an end to Sweden’s hopes of a win without a penalty. The center-back stormed a volley after the ball came off, but although he cleared the ball with good contact, his swing caused his cleats to hit halfway up Artem Besedin’s leg. It was an impact enough to make the crowd collectively flinch when the hyperextension of the knee was shown on the screen. However, the subsequent VAR review may not give the referee full appreciation of the unfortunate nature of the challenge as it started with a freeze frame of contact and slowed the incident down.
Besedin, who had come on just seven minutes earlier, had to come off but Shevchenko’s next substitution was crucial.
Despite the numerical advantage and the six changes on both sides, the extra time looked like two boxers would like to play the last round and secure their chances on the scorecards.
So when the ball was knocked out, there was little anticipation. Zinchenko was the player, however, and the full-back / full-back / central midfielder / attacking midfielder – let’s bet the utility man – is as wild and relentless as anyone else.
He took a touch from the feet and delivered a flank into an area. There are some crosses that need to be spot on and others that you see a gap on and leave the rest to fate. Dovbyk found himself between Victor Lindelof and Filip Helander and simply shot towards the goal. Lindelof hadn’t blocked the front post and Helander hadn’t covered himself.
It was the corridor of uncertainty, it was the corridor of certainty. ‘Come on, son, just go in’. Dovbyk did.
How he was there in the first place is another part of the story. Had the pandemic not come and ruined civilization, the great striker would not have flashed his GPS vest in Brandi Chastain style in front of the world’s cameras.
He has not yet reached the heights he expected when he was first called up to the senior national team in 2016 at the age of 19. It was not until March of this year that he reached his first international match. Tuesday in Hampden was his first taste of tournament football.
His club SC Dnipro-1 has a history of its own as some ultras see the club, founded in 2017, as a way to overwrite the history of the previous club, which was called Dnipro. Dovbyk left the original club and spent two years in Denmark at Midtjylland and SönderjyskE before returning to Dnipro.
It took him sixteen minutes to write his name in folklore and become the man who took Ukraine to a place they had never been before. His header with exactly 120: 37 was after the Turkish Semih Senturk in 2008 against Croatia, the second last goal in the history of the European Championship.
It meant delirium and desolation.
(Photo by Andrew Milligan / PA Images via Getty Images)
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