WCQ Preview: Ukraine versus England
Do matches only shown over the internet actually exist? More than the implications of this match, that is the story being discussed in the English-language media. How dare they take our footy out of our pubs?
A better question to ask: Should games involving a team with no stakes exist? Of course, given the nature of these tournaments, they should. They have to, but there is an element that runs counter to the nature of sport.
The theory behind competitive sport centers around opposing forces trying to accomplish a goal at the expense of the other. Those stakes make for competition.
Can you have that competition when the stakes aren’t the same?
In Saturday’s match, Ukraine gets their chance, via their game-in-hand on second place Croatia, to make up the three points keeping them out of the UEFA playoff spot. Thanks to their goal differential advantage and a tenth round match at Andorra, Ukraine will win the tie-breaker with Croatia.
The only hope for the Croats is England getting a result. That doesn’t seem such a starry-eyed wish, given England is perfect through eight rounds. That perfect record includes a 2-1 win at Wembley over the Ukraine, a match in which England needed a 85th minute goal from John Terry to stay at one hundred percent.
That close match, the troubles they had in Moscow and Zagreb (a loss they have sense redeemed), and their lack incentive makes Ukraine, a team that could beat England if none of these factors were considered, the safe bet in Dnipropetrovsk on Saturday.
But this whole preview, like most previews we’ve read, is subtly disrespectful to Ukraine, given that I have not discussed their club. Since losing at Wembley in April, Ukraine has not lost a qualifier, earning good draws at Croatia and Belarus to couple their home wins of Andorra and Kazahkstan. The draw in Zagreb was critical, putting Oleksiy Mykhaylychenko’s team in position to use their game-in-hand.
That scenario has come to fruition, and with Andriy Shevchenko’s return to form after his move to Dynamo Kiev, the Ukranians become one of the most dangerous teams to enter the UEFA playoff. Along with Dynamo teammate Artem Milevskiy, Liverpool’s Andrei Voronin, and Serhiy Nazarenko coming out of the midfield, Ukraine creates a number of attacking options. If they beat England, they become one of the teams in the unseeded put that teams like France and Portugal will be wary of in the playoff.
And the Ukraine will beat England. Even if England had the incentive to win, this would be a reasonable pick (and, in all fairness, England could play their best on Saturday). But at hope, with a squad that has won big matches before, having played England tough in Wembley, and with their World Cup lives on the line, Ukraine looks set to end Croatia’s quest for a fourth straight World Cup appearance.
Prediction: Ukraine, 2-1
Note: Croatia does not play on Saturday.