With five play-off defeats to their name, this is not the position Ukraine want to be in, but if there ever was a time to end the barren run, it is now. Slovenia will be looking for more of the same after eliminating Zbirna in the two-legged tie ahead of the Euro 2000, but they could face a very difficult task at L’viv Arena.
Since 1998, Ukraine only qualified for one major tournament, while losing five play-offs and making it to the Euro 2012 as the host nation, but this crop of players definitely look capable of helping the national team get back to old glory days. Even if Yevhen Konoplyanka is the only footballer in the squad who plies his trade in a top league, with veteran midfielder Anatoliy Tymoshchuk the other player who is based abroad, this team have got both the quality and experience to not only qualify for the tournament finals, but also make their presence known. Ukraine were unable to progress from a very strong group, but they definitely showed a great deal of potential in matches against Slovakia and Spain, creating a host of clear-cut chances in the final qualifier against the reigning European champions, only to be denied by the magnificent David De Gea time and again. Nevertheless, it is clear that Zbirna have seriously raised their performances of late and if the likes of Konoplyanka, Yarmolenko and Kravets perform to their potential, Slovenia defenders could enjoy a real nightmare in L’viv. Coach Mikhail Fomenko has experienced some selection worries as captain Ruslan Rotan and Oleksandr Gladkiy suffered injuries, whereas Taras Stepanenko and Oleksandr Kucher are both banned for the first leg.
Slovenia, too, had a tough task in the Euro 2016 qualifiers having been placed in the same group as England and Switzerland, but while they did fairly well when facing the top two sides in the group, Srecko Katanec’s men were quite disappointing in matches against defence-minded Lithuania and Estonia. Slovenia eventually pipped Estonia to the play-off berth, but they cannot be too happy about drawing Ukraine in spite of the aforementioned victory in the Euro 2000 play-off. Srecko Katanec is in charge of a very experienced side that knows how to play result-oriented football, but their ageing back line will be no match to players like Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko, some of the Europe’s most accomplished wingers. The midfield duo of Krhin and Kurtic will have an easier job due to the absence of Taras Stepanenko and Ruslan Rotan, but they still cannot be trusted to win the midfield battle as they will be outnumbered by the opposition. The visitors will be hoping that attackers Milivoje Novakovic and Josip Ilicic can produce some magic, with Valter Birsa and Kevin Kampl likely to provide support from the wings. But, with Slovenia losing 8 of last 10 away matches, we cannot trust them to stop in-form Ukraine.
Even with several important missings, Ukraine should be able to dominate the encounter and unless Lady Luck again turns her back on them, the hosts should emerge victorious in the end. Slovenia have been utterly disappointing on the road and they are highly unlikely to show a massive improvement in L’viv.
Verdict: Home win
Best Odds: 5/8
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