Berlin is the venue for the more crucial of the final FIFA World Cup Group H matches this afternoon as Ukraine and Tunisia meet for the first time to decide who will join Spain in qualifying for the knockout phase.
Ukraine will start the match as favourites, after an impressive 4-0 victory over Saudi Arabia restored their morale following the disastrous opening defeat at the hands of the Spaniards in Leipzig last week. Tunisia were impressive in the first half of their second game with Spain, but faded in the latter stages after conceding three second half goals. They enter this afternoon’s match with just a solitary point, earned against Saudi Arabia in their opening match.
Unless Saudi Arabia can provide one of the shocks of the tournament in the day’s other group match by comfortably beating Spain, Ukraine will guarantee their progress with a draw. A win will be enough for Oleg Blokhin’s team regardless of what happens in the other match in Kaiserslauten.
If the humiliating defeat against Spain is ignored, Ukraine can be considered to be one of the form teams of the finals. They have won six of their seven games so far in 2006 and, apart from the opening 4-0 defeat, they have kept clean sheets in each of their other games. The defeat in Leipzig equalled Ukraine’s heaviest defeat in their relatively short history.
Blokhin is the former Soviet Union’s all-time leading goalscorer and is a veteran of seven finals matches in a glittering career as a player. He will be looking to use his considerable experience to guide his team through to the knockout phase in what is their first appearance at a major tournament.
The coach must receive much credit for the way he transformed his team’s performance following their opening defeat. Almost everything went wrong for the Ukrainians in that contest, including a deflected goal, a dubious penalty and a red card. His pride in his team’s response against Saudi Arabia was much in evidence as he spoke to the press on Thursday.
“I was immensely proud of my players for what they achieved,” he said.
“It’s a little bit like Cinderella. The pumpkin turned into a beautiful coach and the other animals turned into wonderful horses. That’s what happened to us. It was a decisive match and we managed to turn things around. The future is still the same as before though as we have to succeed against Tunisia.”
Striker Andriy Voronin was equally delighted at his team’s performance and stated that confidence was now high again in the Ukraine dressing room.
“After the 4-0 defeat against Spain, when the way we played was embarrassing, we wanted to show that we can play,” he said.
“We had a bit of luck but we improved considerably. Our goal has always been to survive the group stage and we all now believe that we can do it. Hopefully we will go into the next round and we will have to see who we come up against.”
Blokhin will welcome back defender Vladyslav Vaschchyuk from the suspension he incurred following his unlucky red card against Spain, but this will be offset by the loss of fellow defender Volodymyr Yesersky, who still hasn’t recovered from the thigh injury that kept him out of the win over Saudi Arabia. Aside from this Blokhin has no further selection problems and will risk Andriy Nesmachnyi, Maksim Kalinichenko and Andriy Rusol, despite all of them being a yellow card away from suspension for the next round.
Tunisia’s French coach Roger Lemerre, who is still looking for his first ever win at the World Cup Finals, faces similar problems regarding potential suspensions. Ten of his squad are in the perilous position of needing to avoid a booking to ensure they can play in the next round, should Tunisia make it through.
His main other worry centres on the fitness of his star striker, the Brazilian born Francileudo dos Santos, who has yet to feature at the finals due to a troublesome calf injury. The injury has improved in the last few days and dos Santos has returned to full training, but it remains doubtful that his coach will risk playing him from the start. The results of a scan were due this morning, and it will be an agonising wait for the striker and his coach.
If the ‘Carthage Eagles’ win this afternoon then their superior goal difference means that they should qualify ahead of Saudi Arabia, even if the Asian qualifiers upset Spain in the group’s other match. Lemerre has been reasonably bullish over his team’s chances in the run-up to the match, despite the morale-sapping collapse in the second half against the Spaniards.
“We need to forget about our second half performance against Spain,” the former France coach told the press on Wednesday.
“We played well for 70 minutes but then fell apart. This time around we’ve got 90 minutes to get things right against Ukraine and that must be our sole focus. A win would give us a real chance of qualifying. Victory is imperative and there is no hiding place. We need to concentrate better and show more ability.”
Tunisia’s recent World Cup Finals form gives little optimism, however. They have gone ten games at the finals without a win, a run even worse than group rivals Saudi Arabia. The streak dates back some 28 years – to the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, when Tunisia beat Mexico 3-1 in the first group stage.
Despite the weight of history being against them, the Tunisian players remain upbeat about their chance of pulling off a minor upset this afternoon.
“We know that we have to risk everything against Ukraine and were satisfied with our overall performance against Spain,” said midfielder Jaouhar Mnari.
“What hurt was that we got tired after 70 minutes. If we can learn from that, which hopefully we have, we still have a chance to progress. We’re going to have no choice but to play attacking football on Friday.”
By Mark Robinson
Tunisia: Boumnijel; Trabelsi, Jaidi, Hagui, Ayari; Namouchi, Mnari, Chedli, Nafti; Bouazizi, Jaziri
Ukraine: Gusev, Rusol, Vashchyuk, Nesmachnyi; Tymoshchyuk, Shelayev, Kalinichenko, Rebrov; Shevchenko, Voronin
Referee:: Carlos Amarilla (Paraguay)