BUCHAREST: Ukraine's coach Andriy Shevchenko reacts during the Euro 2020 Group C match between Ukraine and Austria at the National Arena in Bucharest on June 21, 2021. - AFP

KIEV: Andriy Shevchenko's Ukraine might be disappointed by the fact that they only reached the knockout phase of the European Championship for the first time thanks to a considerable stroke of good fortune. But ahead of tonight's Euro 2020 last-16 game against Sweden, the 44-year-old coach may draw inspiration from a past encounter against the same opponent, the swansong of his illustrious career as a player.

Ukraine lost 3-2 to the Netherlands to start Group C, then clinched a key 2-1 victory over North Macedonia, but were beaten to second place by Austria after a 1-0 defeat in their final game. After an anxious two-day wait to see if they qualified as one of the four best third-placed teams, Ukraine were indebted to Spain, whose crushing win over Slovakia in Group E sent Shevchenko's team through to the next round.

Five years after taking over following Ukraine's failure to score a single goal at Euro 2016, Shevchenko has rejuvenated the team, toughening it up on the big stage. But he described the fatigue of his players as the main reason for the defeat to Austria. "The game was physically hard today. We were constantly late," Shevchenko said after the match in which a draw would have been enough for Ukraine to finish as runners-up. "I saw the team simply lacked strength. We tried to strengthen (with substitutions), but it was almost impossible to do."

The remarks raised eyebrows at home as Ukraine's team have enjoyed preferable conditions for their Euro 2020 preparation, which some explain by a special bond between Shevchenko and the Ukrainian football association chief. Local media say Shevchenko is the godfather of the daughter of Ukrainian FA president Andriy Pavelko. The association in April greenlighted the decision to shrink this season's domestic championship by one week to grant the national team extra time for training ahead of Euro 2020, an unusual move for a European league.

'More positive'

The national FA was also under fire back in 2016 when Shevchenko, the former Dynamo Kiev and AC Milan star, took over from Mykhaylo Fomenko as Ukraine coach, his first managerial role. Critics pointed to Shevchenko's lack of experience and argued that as Fomenko's assistant, he was partly responsible for Ukraine crashing out of the Euro in France after losing all three games in their group. But in their qualifying group for Euro 2020, Ukraine surprisingly finished unbeaten in first, beating reigning European champions Portugal 2-1 in a key match in Kiev.

Ahead of tonight's match in Glasgow, the success of the team that beat Zlatan Ibrahimovic's Sweden 2-1 in Kiev in 2012, and which he captained, might inspire Shevchenko and his men to reach new heights. Ukraine's greatest striker was in the twilight of his career going into Euro 2012, but it was his winning brace in their opening match that sent tens of thousands of local fans at the Olympic Stadium into euphoria.

Despite his 47th and 48th international goals, Shevchenko's last before retirement, Ukraine failed to advance from the group stage as co-hosts with Poland, losing their two remaining matches to France and England. Now Ukraine's current leaders like Manchester City defender Oleksandr Zinchenko and resurgent West Ham United winger Andriy Yarmolenko have to deliver their best to continue the team's adventure in the tournament.

"I agree with some criticism. But I want to ask everyone to bring a little more positivity, because we still reached the knockouts," said Yarmolenko, who scored two out of Ukraine's four goals in the group phase. "We will try to play our football, show our maximum."

At his peak as a player Shevchenko was renowned for his lightning counter-attacks and clinical finishing. He was equally prolific with Dynamo Kiev and Milan as he was for Ukraine, for whom he scored 48 times in 111 matches. With Milan he won the Champions League in 2003 after a penalty shoot-out victory over Juventus. He also claimed a Serie A title in 2004, when he was awarded the Ballon d'Or. - AFP