Group H
Saudi Arabia v Ukraine
Kick-off 17:00 (BST)

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Saudi Arabia and Ukraine will both be looking to overcome opening match disappointments this evening in the first of the second-wave of Group H matches at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Finals. Hamburg’s impressive AOL Arena is the venue as both teams look to strengthen their claims for a qualification berth alongside impressive favourites Spain.

Saudi Arabia and Ukraine will both be looking to overcome opening match disappointments this evening in the first of the second-wave of Group H matches at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Finals. Hamburg’s impressive AOL Arena is the venue as both teams look to strengthen their claims for a qualification berth alongside impressive favourites Spain.

The first meeting between the two nations comes on the back of Ukraine’s poor 4-0 defeat against the Spanish and Saudi Arabia’s injury time concession of an equaliser to Tunisia in their 2-2 draw last Tuesday. Both teams will be looking to put their anguish at those results behind them as they face each other today.

Ukraine had been fancied in some quarters to cause an upset against Spain in their first ever finals match but, having conceded two unlucky early goals, they were unable to recover. They also suffered the setback of having defender Vladislav Vaschuk sent off following a foul in the penalty area one minute after half-time, thus ending any realistic hopes of getting back into the contest.

Clear favourites
Despite this abject performance Ukraine enter today’s game as clear favourites to get their bid for qualification back on track. The challenge presented by their Asian rivals is not an easy one, however, and the team has been warned that they need to improve considerably by their coach Oleg Blokhin.

“Perhaps some of our supporters will have the impression that we will easily beat Saudi Arabia,” Blokhin said on Sunday.

“This is simply incorrect. We watched them closely against Tunisia and they have a very good team. If we play as poorly as we did against Spain they will cause us many problems and are a real danger to our hopes of qualifying for the second phase.”

Blokhin is expected to make several changes to his team today, most of which will be enforced by suspension and injury. Vaschuk’s dismissal results in the compulsory suspension, while midfielders Oleg Gusev and Andriy Vorobey picked up respective knee and shoulder injuries against Spain and are unlikely to be available for selection.

Of more interest to Ukrainian fans is the fitness of superstar striker Andriy Shevchenko, whose long-awaited debut on the world’s biggest stage last week was hindered by a lack of fitness. The Chelsea star recovered from a troublesome knee injury to make the starting line-up against Spain, but his performance was some way short of his brilliant best. While it is true that he lacked decent service from his team-mates he did not appear to be match-fit, and Blokhin will be hoping that the difficult 90 minutes endured against Spain will have gone far towards improving his sharpness and match fitness.

The 4-0 reverse in their debut match equals Ukraine’s worst-ever defeat in the relatively short history of the national team. The result matched a 4-0 loss against Croatia in a 1995 European Championship qualifier, and Europe’s only World Cup debutants will be hoping that their finals nadir has already been reached.

“I think everyone understands that we have to start again from scratch and put Tuesday behind us,” Shevchenko insisted on Saturday.

“Even given the score, the loss to Spain is not necessarily a negative thing. I said before the World Cup began that getting out of the group would be a good result and we are still aiming to do that.”

Of his much talked-about match fitness, Shevchenko had the following to say:

“I felt better after the game but I still need match practice. I thank the coach for leaving me on the field for the whole game even though I was struggling. Every moment on the field during the Spain match I was struggling to rediscover my form.”

Looking ahead to today’s match, the former Milan and Dynamo Kiev player urged his team-mates to step up their performances and treat it like a cup final. Back home, fans from the banks of the Dnieper to the Carpathian Mountains will be hoping that the captain’s pleas do not fall on deaf ears.

“We must treat this match and the next one against Tunisia as if they are finals,” he said.

“We still have everything to play for and we must make sure we don’t slip up in Hamburg. We will only qualify for the second round if we win both of our next two games.”

Saudi fightback
Having conceded a first-half goal against Tunisia in Munich last week, Saudi Arabia’s supporters will have marvelled at the way in which their team responded. Two second-half goals and a host of near misses meant that the Saudis were on the way to their first ever opening day victory at the finals, only for Bolton defender Rahdi Jaidi to score a heart-breaking equaliser in the second minute of stoppage time.

Brazilian coach Marco Paqueta is in the enviable position of having a full squad to choose from for today’s match, following the rehabilitation of captain and star striker Sami Al-Jaber from a thigh injury. The prolific marksman was only fit enough to be considered for a place on the bench for the opening game, but his introduction as a late second-half substitute almost swung the game in Saudi Arabia’s favour. The 33 year-old Al Hilal forward scored almost immediately after coming on and it looked like his 82nd minute striker would be the winning goal. He is likely to partner club-mate and fellow opening day goalscorer Yasser Al-Qahtani from the start today in a more attacking line-up.

Al-Jaber has won an astonishing 161 caps for his country, and his hunger for goals is still as relentless as it was when he made his debut against Syria in 1992. He is playing in his fourth consecutive World Cup Finals and, now he is set to be restored to the starting line-up, he is relishing the prospect of continuing his good form.

“I’m still very excited about playing football and hopefully everyone can see that,” he said on Sunday.

“We were disappointed to concede such a late goal against Tunisia and we will be going out to defeat Ukraine, that’s for sure. I think we have grown as a team and this tournament is set to be much better for us than Japan and Korea in 2002. I think the excellence of the games in the tournament have reflected the organisation of the competition itself and everyone is enjoying being a part of it – us included.”

Paqueta was frustrated by his team’s late capitulation against Tunisia, a team that he had been confident of defeating in the run-up to the match. Paqueta had identified the contest with the Tunisians as the easiest game for the ‘Sons of the Desert’ due to his squad’s experience of playing against African opposition. He does not, however, seem unduly worried about the prospect of playing Ukraine and Spain in the next two games.

“We know about the African game and our own ability to play against teams from that continent so it was disappointing to throw away two points at the end,” he said.

“We are more untested against European teams and have tried to address this by arranging several friendlies against European opposition. Despite this there will be an element of surprise – but for them too. We are well aware that a win for us will make our dream of reaching the second phase closer.”

“It is very important for us to begin well against Ukraine and the first fifteen minutes will be crucial. We have to be intelligent, tactically. They have an excellent attack. In addition to Shevchenko, the boy Voronin is excellent. He is fast and dangerous and we must watch him closely.”

Paqueta has been disappointed by the predicted weather changes that have hit Hamburg in the last couple of days. He has noted that Ukraine struggled in 33 degree heat against Spain last week and, with his entirely domestic-based squad used to an average June temperature in excess of 50 degrees back home, he has been left frustrated by Hamburg’s cooler temperatures.

“There has been a radical change in the temperature and this hasn’t helped us,” he said.

“When we played in Munich it was 30 degrees and my players loved it. Here it is only 15 degrees so I am praying for some sun. Ukraine has a very hard match from a physical point of view against Spain but the cooler temperatures here will aid them.”
By Mark Robinson

Probable teams:
Saudi Arabia: Zaid; Dokhi, Sulaimani, Al-Ghamdi, Al-Montashari; Al-Khariri, Noor, Al-Temyat. Al-Thaker; Al-Jaber, Al-Qahtani

Ukraine: Shovkovsky; Yezersky, Rusol, Chigrinsky, Nesmachny; Husin, Timoshchyuk, Shelayev, Rotan; Shevchenko, Voronin

Referee: Graham Poll (England)

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