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For tens of millions of Ukrainians, the destiny of the nation’s football team will be forged in the industrial outpost of Donetsk tonight.
Only a victory over England will keep Ukraine in a tournament the country fought so hard to host, and then keep hold of when organisational disorder threatened to ruin a European Championship party five years in the making.
They’ll need to take that fighting spirit into the Donbass Arena to avoid following co-hosts Poland out of the tournament.
“It’s the biggest match in Ukraine’s history,” Ukraine striker Andriy Voronin said. “It’s our last chance to go to the quarter-finals. We will do everything to get there. For us, it is a very important game, not just for the team but for the whole country.”
Deputy Prime Minister Boris Kolesnikov wants the country to become a yellow-and-blue patchwork today, urging the public to “support their national team and put pressure on their opponent”.
“There is no other recipe,” he said. “Each Ukrainian window must have a Ukrainian flag, and there are already lots of flags on cars.”
The team, though, is not heading in the right direction.
Opening Group D by coming from behind to beat Sweden 2-1 raised the hopes of the nation, but a demoralising 2-0 loss to France sapped the spirit of fans.
They’ll need to muster every last reserve of energy to turn the Donetsk stadium into an intimidating cauldron for the English, who could advance to the quarter-finals even if they lose.
“There’s going to be a big atmosphere and it’s something we have to deal with,” England striker Wayne Rooney said.
While Rooney is returning from suspension, the Ukrainians could be without skipper Andriy Shevchenko, who is in doubt with a knee injury.
The Dynamo Kiev striker has scored his country’s only goals in the tournament.
“He probably didn’t have the best of times at Chelsea (between 2006 and 2009) and now he’s scoring goals,” Rooney said. “If he gets a chance in the box, then more than likely he’ll take it. They were two great pieces of movement to score his goals (against Sweden), he took them really well.”
For Rooney, it’s also about containing Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplianka on the flanks.
“Their two main threats are Shevchenko and the two wide men,” Rooney said. “We’ve watched videos and I think if we can keep them quiet, then there’s a chance there’s spaces behind the midfield, particularly to the sides, which we can hopefully exploit.”
A draw would be enough to take England through to the quarter-finals, and a loss would leave them relying on a heavier French collapse to Sweden.
Confidence is high in the England camp after holding France and then beating Sweden, combined with the know- ledge that Rooney is available for selection again.
The Manchester United striker was banned by Uefa for kicking a Montenegro player in the final Euro 2012 qualifier, and he is now desperate to make an impact.
It hasn’t been easy for Rooney on the international stage, though. He has failed to score at the last two major competitions – the World Cups in 2006 and 2010. England didn’t qualify for Euro 2008.
“In international tournaments, I haven’t been good enough,” he said. “I hope I can put it right. I am not going to say I will because you never know what is going to happen. My last goal in a (major) tournament was at Euro 2004. I feel I’m a better player now and capable of more.”
Rooney could be partnering United teammate Danny Welbeck up front tonight if Liverpool striker Andy Carroll is dropped.
“We have a good understanding,” Rooney said. “I think his biggest strength is running behind defences. He is so quick. If he gets behind you, he is difficult to catch. He has got great feet and he is also capable of coming short and linking in the play which sometimes leads me to get in behind.
“There is a good rotation there. Defences don’t know which player is going to go short or long. It makes it difficult for defenders to judge.”
Unless Shevchenko is ruled out, the back four is the only area where Ukraine coach Oleg Blokhin is likely to make any changes, with central defenders Taras Mykhalyk and Yevhen Kacheridi expected to be switched for Olexandr Kucher and Yaroslav Rakitskiy.