Andriy Shevchenko enjoyed an illustrious career as Ukraine’s greatest striker. Now as coach of the national team, he is on the brink of guiding the side to Euro 2020.
The former Dynamo Kiev and AC Milan star, nicknamed ‘Sheva’, was appointed Ukraine coach in July 2016, his first managerial role.
On his watch, the team fell short of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup after a home loss to Croatia in the final round of games knocked them out of contention.
But ahead of next year’s European Championship, Ukraine need just a point from their remaining two matches to reach the final stages of the tournament.
‘I want to see this project through... to get to the Euros and perform well there,’ Shevchenko told AFP ahead of Monday’s clash at home to defending champions Portugal.
Ukraine are unbeaten in qualifying with 16 points after six matches, the most recent a 2-0 win over Lithuania on Friday, and hold a surprise five-point lead in Group B.
Shevchenko appears to have struck a balance between young talent and experienced players such as West Ham forward Andriy Yarmolenko and Shakhtar Donetsk winger Yevgen Konoplyanka.
Shevchenko took over from Mykhaylo Fomenko, who resigned after Ukraine were knocked out of Euro 2016 without scoring a single goal.
Critics pointed to Shevchenko’s lack of experience and argued that as Fomenko’s assistant, he was partly responsible for Ukraine crashing out after losing all three games in their group.
‘It was a very big challenge for me. I agreed to do it with my eyes open,’ Shevchenko said of the managerial role.
‘The harder it is to succeed, the more it motivates me. I wanted to succeed with the national team and I believed in the players.’
Ukraine did not qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia but many had urged a boycott over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and support for the separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine.
The current qualifying campaign has allowed the team’s younger talents to mature -- with Ruslan Malinovskyi, who joined Atalanta from Belgian champions Genk this summer, and Manchester City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko developing into key players.
Shevchenko and his Italian assistants, Mauro Tassotti and Andrea Maldera, have transformed the team’s style into a more creative and attacking approach.
‘I thought ball control and attacking football weren’t for us because we didn’t have enough technically skilled players,’ Artem Frankov, the editor-in-chief of ‘Football’ magazine, told AFP.
‘But suddenly a very curious side has appeared before us - a Ukraine team that is rejuvenated and quite combat-ready.’
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 AC Milan as he was for Ukraine, for whom he scored 48 times in 111 matches.
With AC Milan he won the Champions League in 2003 after a penalty shoot-out victory over Juventus, and claimed a Serie A title in 2004, when he was awarded the Ballon d’Or as European footballer of the year.
Shevchenko endured a difficult two-year spell at Chelsea, where he won the FA Cup and League Cup before returning to Dynamo Kiev, where he first shot to fame helping his side to five straight league titles from 1995.
After ending his playing career following Euro 2012, Shevchenko tried to go into politics but failed to win a seat in Ukraine’s parliament.
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