Ukraine eager to prove worth

KIEV (Reuters) – World Cup debutantes Ukraine will be eager to prove themselves next June in Germany after reaching a major championship finals for the first time in their history. After suffering bitter playoff defeats in their last three championship campaigns, Ukraine finally succeeded, becoming the first European nation to qualify for the 2006 finals at the beginning of September. The former Soviet state won a tough European Group 2, also containing continental champions Greece, 2002 World Cup semifinalists Turkey and former European winners Denmark, who all failed to make it. Now Ukraine, led by a pair of European Footballers of the Year in coach Oleg Blokhin, who won the Golden Ball award in 1975, and striker Andriy Shevchenko, last year’s winner, want to follow up their recent good form with a fine showing in Germany. Some experts, such as former Belgium goalkeeper Jean-Marie Pfaff, who played in the 1982 and 1986 World Cups, think Ukraine can make the semifinals. «It’s quite possible as they have a player of Shevchenko’s calibre in their side,» Pfaff, who helped Belgium to reach the semifinals at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, told Sport-Express newspaper. Blokhin is more cautious. «It’ll be our first major championship, so it’s hard to predict the outcome but certainly we want to make a good account of ourselves there,» said the former Soviet striker. Blokhin knows his team’s strengths and shortcomings. Ukraine are largely dependent on one player and if Shevchenko is struggling for form or injured their chances even to make it out of the first-round group are slim. Most of the Ukraine players are also lacking big-match experience. Shevchenko, however, remains optimistic. «We have a young team, capable of causing upsets,» the AC Milan striker has told Ukrainian media.