Ukraine’s Euro 2024 football hopes hinge on clash with Belgium

Ukraine staged a dramatic comeback to defeat Slovakia 2-1, revitalizing their hopes of advancing from the EURO 2024 group stages.

“During halftime, the national team must have received a powerful pep talk from the coach, as their hidden talents suddenly emerged after the break.The match against Slovakia brought mixed feelings, but our team proved stronger. They regrouped in the second half and showed the world their Cossack spirit,” Ukrainian serviceman Hryhorii Hoidalo from the 105th Territorial Defense Brigade, currently fighting on the Kharkiv front, told Euromaidan Press. 

Before the men’s squad faced off against Slovakia, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy held a virtual meeting with the team to encourage them ahead of the match.

“Believe in each other! Support each other! Fight for each other! That is what should unite us all. And now each of us, in our own place, must fight: for freedom, life, and the right perception of Ukraine in the world. Ukraine that fights. Ukraine that takes a punch and overcomes obstacles. Ukraine that can win. This is exactly what Ukraine’s National Football Team is doing today,” Zelenskyy posted on X, following the match.

Ukraine’s victory means Ukraine still has a chance to advance to the knockout rounds after a disastrous start to EURO 2024 with a 0-3 defeat to Romania in the opening match.

“I think there was a serious discussion and some disciplinary work following the first disastrous match. The coaching staff definitely contributed to the changes by working on the mistakes and re-emphasizing different aspects in the team’s play,” a Ukrainian football commentator and a serving member of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Vadym Skichko wrote on X.

Skichko noted several key improvements in Ukraine’s performance. Four new players energized the team, while a shift to vertical play created early scoring chances. The attack became more dynamic and aggressive, and players covered more ground. Most notably, the team’s attitude and emotional intensity were significantly elevated.

Slovakia scored after 17 minutes to take the lead. However, while creating chances, there was no real spark from the Ukrainian side in the first half. 

Ukraine rallied strongly after halftime, while Slovakia tired. Skichko attributed Slovakia’s fatigue to their tough previous match against Belgium.

Mykola Shaparenko scored the equalizer in the 54th minute with a well-executed close-range finish. Shaparenko also delivered a brilliant pass to Roman Yaremchuk, who made a sublime touch before sliding the ball past the Slovakian goalkeeper, potentially scoring the goal of the tournament. Ukraine’s head coach, Serhiy Rebrov, was initially upset with Shaparenko’s pass. However, once he saw Yaremchuk’s touch and goal, his disappointment turned to joy, and he started yelling and running in celebration.

Ukrainian players celebrating Roman Yaremchuk’s goal. Source: Ukrainian Association of Football via Facebook

“Following Slovakia’s opening goal, Ukraine knew that a loss would eliminate them from the competition. Aside from fighting for their country and their defenders, the Ukrainians wanted to ensure that they would not be embarrassed on the international stage,” Mark Temnycky, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and football commentator, told Euromaidan Press. 

Temnycky noted Yaremchuk’s impactful actions off the field. After scoring the winning goal, which he dedicated to Ukraine, Yaremchuk took to Instagram with a powerful message: calling for Russia to free Ukrainian soldiers captured at Azovstal.

Roman Yaremchuk seized the opportunity to spotlight the Free Azovstal Defenders campaign, sharing the news with a vast audience. Source: Roman Yaremchuk via Instagram

“Whatever Rebrov said in the interval made Ukraine come out with a hunger and desire to win the game. They looked up for it so much more than in the previous 135 minutes of football. They’ll need to show that again from the off against Belgium,”  Andrew Todos, a British-Ukrainian football journalist, told Euromaidan Press.

Oleksandr Zinchenko celebrating. Todos said Zinchenko was one of Ukraine’s top performers against Slovakia and that “he didn’t put a foot wrong.” Source: Oleksandr Zinchenko via instagram

Rebrov made four changes to the starting lineup, most notably in goal. After a poor showing against Romania, Anatoliy Trubin was given the nod and delivered a crucial performance in Ukraine’s victory over Slovakia. Temnycky noted that Trubin’s impressive display has secured his spot for the Belgium match, with the potential to remain first-choice goalkeeper for the rest of the tournament if Ukraine prevails.

“Tsyhankov was injured so Yarmolenko replaced him and had an alright game. Brazkho offered more energy and stamina than Stepanenko at the base of midfield,” said Todos. However, Todos was unsure why Tymchyk replaced Konoplya since “Tymchyk was Ukraine’s least effective player.”

Roman Yaremchuk couldn’t hold back his emotions after Ukraine’s victory. Source: Twitter (X) page of the official page of UEFA EURO 2024

Skichko doesn’t anticipate any major adjustments in the upcoming match against Belgium, such as Yaremchuk’s potential appearance in the starting lineup or Mykolenko returning from injury to start as left back if he is ready to play.

“Regarding the style against the Belgians, it is important for Ukraine to value ball possession and be very careful in duels. It’s no secret that Belgium is filled with world-class players, so they cannot be given additional opportunities. The more Ukraine keeps the ball, the better,” Skichko said. 

Ukraine’s national team celebrating with fans following the comeback victory against Slovakia. Source: Ukrainian Association of Football via Facebook

After the initial loss against Romania, Ukraine is in a difficult spot even after beating Slovakia.

“Currently, all four teams in the group sit on 3 points, but Ukraine has the worst goal difference at -2. This means they pretty much need to win on Matchday 3. A victory against Belgium would guarantee passage to the knockout stages. It is the hardest outcome, but it is the most straightforward on paper,” Temnycky explained. 

Ukraine’s fate hinges on their Belgium match, he added. A win secures their path, while a draw or loss complicates it. They’d then need specific results from other teams and groups to advance. Their best hope in that case would be qualifying as a top third-placed team, which depends on multiple outcomes across the tournament.

However, Ukraine demonstrated the fighting spirit the entire country was counting on against Slovakia. Soldiers on the frontline eagerly cheered on the national team, hoping the “Cossacks” would rise to the occasion and battle for their place in the knockout rounds of the tournament. 

Ukrainian athletes have a lot to play for as they embody the nation’s continued defiance both on the battlefield and on the football field. The Ministry of Youth and Sport of Ukraine has released new figures highlighting the devastating impact of Russian aggression on Ukrainian sports since February 2022. According to the latest data, 479 athletes have lost their lives, and 518 sports facilities have been damaged or destroyed by Russian missiles, bullets, and shells.

Belgium remains the favorite to win on Wednesday. However, with everything on the line for Ukraine, the national team is expected to give it their all in the match against Belgium. 

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