So when did Kiev host the Olympics? I always thought that an Olympic Stadium had to have at least held one. Not that it matters, of course, as the stadium in question will be Shevchenko Stadium from now on, after two Andriy Shevchenko headers in seven second-half minutes clinched Ukraine’s storybook come-from-behind win over Sweden.
The BBC studio pundits, with a bit of outside broadcast support from the increasingly polished Jake Humphrey, took about nine opportunities to crack the Shevchenko stadium joke, or variants thereof (Shevchenko fan park, Shevchenko beer etc…). Indeed, Gary Lineker had been tweeting it from the moment Shevchenko equalised.
This was all rather unfair on Andriy Voronin; the “former Liverpool misfit” – as commentator Jonathan Pearce kindly styled him – was more often the driving force than the ex-Chelsea flop. I was half-right and half-very-wrong to write “time for Shevchenko to come off and Ukraine’s tempo to rise” after Sweden scored. However, until then, Shevchenko more resembled a veteran playing in, or on the peripheries of, his own testimonial than an international captain looking to inspire his people. “A sentimental pick,” I had noted before kick-off. For 35 minutes, this game threatened to be the first out-and-out stinker of the tournament. Shevchenko gave no hint whatsoever of the personal glories to come with a horrible finish to a pinpoint pass from Liverpool’s former misfit. And Pearce and co-commentator Martin Keown were able to spend more time reflecting on players’ pasts than anything happening in their presents.
Olof Mellberg is, Keown informed us, “still an Aston Villa hero,” which sounded most unlikely until you remembered how bad Villa have been since he left. And Keown’s euphemistic take on Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic was that “he divides opinion, doesn’t he?” which brought a rare moment of silent reflection from Pearce, pondering the advisability of strangling Keown’s theory at birth with his own “euphemistic take on the “talismanic” Swede. Pearce’s particular ire, though, was directed at Ukraine keeper Andriy Pyatov, who was name-checked for “howlers” and a dismal performance in a UEFA Cup Final against Werder Bremen. Pyatov overcame the early jitters, which were hardly unique to him among the under-pressure hosts, and proved one of the more capable performers on the night, which Pearce seemed keen to acknowledge.
Once the game got going, it was enthralling. Ibrahimovic struck the outside of the post with a perfect example of what Alan Shearer called the “skill” of “heading the ball back in the direction it’s come from” (geometric nonsense, of course, but it sounds intellectual – for Shearer, at least). And Villa Park hero Mellberg made two stunning blocks to keep Shevchenko and Andriy Yarmolenko at bay, after a move instigated by another fine Voronin pass. So it was that the nil-nil which had been written all over this game was scrubbed out, although the drama of the second half’s opening fifteen minutes was still a surprise. Ibrahimovic side-footed Sweden ahead on 52 minutes after a move which, in its embryonic stages, had to clear the hurdle of a prostrate Ukrainian defender.
For a few moments, Ukraine looked ultra-flustered and open to conceding a second goal, although Pearce and Keown couldn’t quite agree on how this panic manifested itself: “A bit rushed again” (Pearce). “Yeah, he wanted the ball earlier than that” (Keown). Then, as I suggested, the hosts attacked at a pace which had been utterly lacking and, as I had patently not suggested, Shevchenko’s diving header from Yarmolenko’s cross on 55 minutes produced a startling number of one-word sentences from BBC observers. Pearce’s clearly long-rehearsed reaction was: “National. Treasure. Icon. Goalscorer.” And studio pundit Alan Hansen gave us “Toes. Toes. Toes. Heel” by way of talking us through Mellberg’s less sharp reaction to the cross.
There was barely time for Pearce to make it rather too clear for his BBC bosses’ liking on which side of Ukraine’s deep political divide he stood, before Shevchenko completed his pitch for immortality with a near-post header from a corner by Frank Skinner doppelganger Oleh Gusev. But the enormity of Ukraine’s situation robbed them of their composure, which wasn’t helped by manager Oleg Blokhin withdrawing Shevchenko AND Voronin within the space of three minutes. Ukrainian journalists had reportedly expressed surprise at Shevchenko’s re-appearance for the second half. But his goals had as galvanising an effect on his overall game as you’d expect.
Meanwhile, Voronin had been brilliant throughout, with his last contribution – winning a free-kick with a lung-busting run at the heart of Sweden’s defence – hardly suggesting a man in need of a rest. Shorn of this quality and experience, Ukraine defended far too deep and should have suffered the consequences. Unfortunately for the Swedes, their best two chances fell to a striker with no match-fitness and a centre-half with a straggly beard. And neither Johan Elmander nor Mellberg (for it was they) could find the target from relatively close range with only Pyatov to beat. Had the Elmander of Bolton Wanderers’ 2010/11 season been in front of goal, the whole night’s story might have been different – though maybe not to the extent of Sweden playing their next World Cup qualifier at the Elmander Stadium.
However, Sweden’s 90th-minute chance fell to the Elmander of 2009/10, who scored three goals all season. Their 93rd-minute chance fell to Mellberg, who hadn’t become a Villa hero on the basis of his goalscoring. And Shevchenko’s agent could start talks on naming rights deals. We were informed at the start of the evening that the winners of this match would be “favourites for second place in the group,” which seemed a little harsh given that Ukraine are now two points clear at the top, with two home games to come. But, in truth, there was little to suggest that Group D’s two best teams hadn’t drawn 1-1 in Donetsk, earlier in the evening. And whilst the BBC pundits’ view that England had “nothing to fear from these two” smacked of the old arrogance, it wasn’t far wrong.
Still, a great evening.
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