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Proud, gifted and at home - meet the Euro 2012 dark horses

When a young Oleg Blokhin pulled on his national shirt for the first time it wasn’t yellow or blue, it was red and emblazoned on the front of his shirt were the letters CCCP.

Forty years will have elapsed since Blokhin’s international career began come June of next year and the days of the Soviet Union are now distant memories.

Ukrainian football fans will have looked on in envy four years ago as Guus Hiddink’s Russia took apart the Netherlands in Basel on their way to a third place finish at Euro 2008.

This time around it’s the turn of the yellow and blue of Ukraine and in Blokhin (pictured) - the national team manager - they have an experienced coach with a handful of outstanding pros and some dazzling young talent to compete with the best next year.

The leader

Step forward Anatoly Tymoshchuk - with over 100 caps the former Shakhtar Donetsk and Zenit captain is as reliable, honest and brave as they come.

Having guided the fledgling Shakhtar dynasty during a domestically dominating three years, it wasn’t long before he was leading his new team Zenit St Petersburg out at Eastlands for their UEFA Cup triumph.

The holding midfielder’s stint at Bayern Munich has been far from plain sailing though. Ex coach Louis van Gaal wasn’t a fan, well at least at first, announcing he would prefer Tymoshchuk to move on in January.

No public retaliation came and Tymoshchuk instead wanted to get on with the job - and efore long he was back in the team, excelling this time at centre back and showing that his versatility and attitude are of the highest standard.

The proven goalscorer

Admittedly Andriy Shevchenko is now 35 and some years past his free-scoring early noughties pomp in European football.

Despite notching only two international goals in the last two years, his value to the national team remains strong both on and off the field.

Most footballers would have married an American supermodel (well, ok, so he did do that) and swanned off to play in Los Angeles or New York.

Not Shevchenko though - he decided instead to return to the club that launched him onto the world stage, Dynamo Kiev, dedicating his final seasons to the fans and choosing to be based at home in the run up to next year’s Euro 2012 glory bid.

His forward play is still clever, his use of the ball intelligent and his anti-ego means he is respected by his teammates.

The defence

A brief look at Ukraine’s recent results reveals nothing spectacular and on occasion they have been heavily beaten. There is a reason, his name is Dmytro Chygrynskiy.

Ask Pep Guardiola in a quiet room if he wanted to keep the giant Shakhtar centre back and he will tell you unequivocally yes. Nobody buys a central defender for 25 million Euros if he isn’t an outstanding talent.

In the last 14 internationals Ukraine have played with Chygrynskiy in the team they have won 10 and drawn four, keeping clean sheets in half of those matches.

In fact, you have to go back to Ukraine’s 2-1 defeat against England during the 2008-2009 season for the last time the former Barcelona player walked off the field on the losing team in an international.

Upon Chygrynskiy’s return from injury, Blokhin will look to build a solid defence around him.

The youth

Bringing the pace and flair to the team are two rather special young talents; Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka.

At 22 they are young, but not inexperienced. Both have graduated from the under 21 set up and both have played in European competitions for Dynamo Kiev and Dnipro respectively.

Yarmolenko has quickly stolen the limelight from Kiev team mate Artem Milevskiy as the nation’s new golden boy and unlike Milevskiy’s inability to take his game to the next level, Yarmolenko is grabbing it with both hands.

Six goals in 17 appearances is an outstanding start at international level for any young winger. He has also hit eight goals in 15 games domestically this season as Dynamo look to wrestle back the title from mega-rich Shakhtar.

On the opposite flank Konoplyanka can be electric, blessed with dazzling pace and tricky feet his goal against Germany in Ukraine’s 3-3 draw showcased his huge potential.

He is not as rounded as a player as Yarmolenko yet, but he does possess massive self confidence and 2012 could be a big year for the Dnipro youngster.

Ukraine have a lot going for them, not least 47 million fans urging them on in their own backyard. If they can keep their key men fit they could go far and excite at the same time.

By James Wagner

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