It was never going to live up to Monday’s drama, but Ukraine and Sweden closed out the Round of 16 with a dramatic ending of their own, after a tremendously absorbing match. Ukraine have a new folk hero, his name is Artem Dovbyk and generations of Dovbyks will remember the moment he scored his very first international goal. Or, better yet, they’ll look it up on YouTube, because if they’re merely told the story, they may not believe it.
Dovbyk, a 24-year-old forward with SC Dnipro-1, only made his international debut in March and is not exactly what you’d call a rising star. He’s a young man whose itinerant career has seen him play in the Ukrainian second division, the Danish league and the Moldovan league. Before Tuesday night, he had played just 51 minutes of international football… against Kazakhstan and Bahrain.
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On Wednesday, though, he became a household name in Ukraine, as his buzzer-beating diving header — after slipping between Swedish defenders Victor Lindelof and Filip Helander — propelled Ukraine past Sweden 2-1, and into a showdown with England in the quarterfinals of Euro 2020, capping a nail-biting game in Glasgow.
His celebration — and that of the visiting fans — said it all. He whipped off his shirt and ran: eyes wide, fists pumping, muscles flexing as he galloped towards the bench. A late goal, an unlikely hero, a massive moment for a nation, and pure, unfettered joy.
“I think the guys played for their supporters. We are really pleased. Our diaspora really supported us,” said manager Andriy Shevchenko afterwards. “I think some people would’ve spent their last money to get here — we heard you, and thank you so much for your support.”
It had been a scorching, sunny day in Glasgow and as the two teams kicked off the obvious change was that Ukraine had game-planned for the Swedes. Andriy Shevchenko switched to a three-man back line after going 4-3-3 in the group games. The goal was to blunt the Swedes’ young dynamos up front — Alexander Isak and Dejan Kulusevski — while, just as importantly, freeing Oleksandr Zinchenko to do what he does at Manchester City down theft flank: start wide, with the option of drifting inside to create or attacking the by-line to cross.
Zinchenko had played centrally in the earlier games and, on some level, it made sense. Shevchenko was wrestling with a challenge faced by many ‘mid-majors’ in this tournament: what happens when your most gifted footballer plays a role week in, week out at club level that risks leaving him on the periphery of play? Do you move him into a more central and therefore influential position to get him more of the ball? That’s what Shevchenko had done in previous games, not least because that’s also where Zinchenko had begun his career, but the City man had been poor.
Sweden’s line-up looked familiar, which meant it looked lop-sided. Again, another mid-major problem: balance. Nominally, it was a 4-4-2. But the man wide right was Sebastian Larsson, a 36-year-old defensive midfielder. Wide left, on the other hand, we got Emil Forsberg, a dynamic, graceful, attacking force who has played plenty of forward at Leipzig over the years. It was the same set-up to the previous games, but it was a different approach, as the game turned into an open, engaging back-and-forth.
The minimalist, safety-first defend-and-counter side that we saw in the opening group games was nowhere to be seen. In its place was a side that screamed “We got this far, we’re playing with house money, let’s go for it.” Ukraine adopted a similar mentality. Despite leaving out the much-hyped Ruslan Malinovskyi, Shevchenko’s troops advanced with glee, spreading to play to both flanks and letting the hyperactive Mykola Shaparenko wreak havoc.
It was he who picked out Andriy Yarmolenko with a pinpoint crossfield ball just inside the box. Yarmolenko turned, feinted and delivered a scooped ball with the outside of his boot that looked like a trick shot you might see on the billiard felt. It curved around the Swedish defenders, landed softly and sat up for the on-rushing Zinchenko’s walloped finish from the opposite side. Sweden Goalkeeper Robin Olsen got a hand to it, but no more.
“After the first three games we received a lot of criticism, I wanted to show to those people they should be quiet as we are a team that deserves [praise] as we fight to do our tasks. I showed they need to support us,” said Zinchenko post-match.
Sweden immediately pushed for the equalizer and were rewarded just before the half, when Forsberg’s shot from outside the box smacked off the big body of the 18-year-old Ilya Zabarnyi (“If you’re good enough, you’re old enough”… and he is) and into the back of the net. Deflected? Sure. Deserved? Yes. Both things can be true.
The second half saw the woodwork rattled three times, as both Sweden and Ukraine sought to find their momentum. First, it was Serhiy Sydorchuk, then Forsberg, finding the outside of the post. With 20 minutes to go, the diminutive Forsberg, whose soft contours remind you of an Ewok with the heart of a Berserker, danced a devilish slalom through the Ukraine ranks and uncorked a shot that smacked against the crossbar. You didn’t want this to end as the game neared extra time.
Ukraine fans, steeped in a corner of Hampden Park, intoned an ovation for Shevchenko, the hero of yesteryear. He saluted with a wave, deep in thought. And, just maybe, wished he could come on to break down the Swedish ranks, as he had done nine years prior against the Swedes when he scored a brace in a 2-1 Ukraine victory at Euro 2012.
Sweden boss Janne Andersson made a triple substitution five minutes into extra-time, taking off both Isak and Kulusevski, as well as Larsson. It was a bold statement of a move, yet, barely a minute later it was rendered meaningless when Marcus Danielson’s mis-timed boot found substitute Artem Besedin just above the knee, forcing Besedin off with a nasty-looking injury. Referee Daniele Orsato had no choice. Danielson was sent off.
“This victory I’d like to dedicate to Besedin, he received a horrible injury — when I came back to the locker room, I was beside myself. I’m sure he’ll come back stronger,” said Zinchenko regarding his fallen teammate.
Sweden battened down the hatches and it looked as if we were heading to penalty kicks, even as the chances kept coming. And then came Zinchenko’s cross, Dovbyk’s header and the moment that will live in Ukrainian footballer lore for many years to come.
Shevchenko pumped his arms in the air, embraced his assistant (and former Milan teammate Mauro Tassotti). It was the sort of goal he used to score. Not so much the headed part, but that was the least of it. Rather, the timing of the run, giving two defenders the slip, careful to stay on side and leaving the keeper no chance.
Up next is England but Shevchenko isn’t backing down from the challenge.
“To achieve a result like this, we needed to believe and to be strong. Our players showed it today. The English team is a great team, they have a great subs bench as well,” said the former Chelsea striker.
“I watched the first half, they are very strong and I know it well. They have a great coach. We understand how tough this game will be.
“Now we just need to recover and from tomorrow we will start our preparation. We will try something to give us a positive result in the end.”
Ukraine may have entered the tournament as outsiders, but Shevchenko’s boys are coming good.
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