by Mark Rachkevych.
Ukraine’s Taras Stepanenko heads the ball as Slovakia midfielder Robert Mak enters late with a kick in Kyiv’s Olympic Stadium on Sept. 8 during their European soccer championship qualifying match that Slovakia won 1-0. © ffu.org.ua
KYIV, Ukraine – Slovakia successfully defended an early first-half goal to take its opening Group C European soccer championship qualifier against Ukraine 1-0 thanks to midfielder Robert Mak’s accurate pointer in the 17th minute. Fellow midfielder Marek Hamsik accurately found him at the 60-meter mark that the PAOK footballer touched ahead splitting two Ukrainian defenders who were belatedly closing the gap as he hit home.
It was enough to give Slovakia an away win in the six-team group, which will see each squad play two-legged games against each other for the rights to play in the continent’s most prestigious soccer tournament taking place in France next in 2016.
Missing for most of the game was Ukraine’s characteristically composed, combinational play that spectators witnessed in the latest World Cup qualifying cycle under coach Mykahilo Fomenko’s guidance. The blue-and-yellows narrowly missed qualifying for Brazil in a round-robin match that France won.
Ukraine started with an aggressively quick tempo that often fizzled the deeper play entered Slovakia’s disciplined defense. Jan Kozak’s side flooded the midfield with five players buttressed by four in the back who clinically made quick transitions to offense, leaving the blue-and-yellows to often back pedal.
After the opening goal, Slovakia continued threatening with defender Peter Pekarik having the best chance. He almost doubled the score in the 33rd with a strike 20 meters out that goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov had to dive to save near the far post.
Yet Ukraine still had plenty of chances, especially as the half waned. Defender Yaroslav Rakitskiy failed on each of his side’s three free kicks to penetrate beyond Slovakia’s defending wall. Towards the end of the half in the 44th, Taras Stepanenko met Edmar’s arching pass with a header only for the leaping goalkeeper Matus Kozacik to deny the finish. A minute later forward Roman Zozulya was in a similar position, but misfired his header while diving.
Ukraine midfielder Oleh Husiev (left) reacts after an attempt on goal as Slovak goalkeeper Jan Kozak cups the ball during their Euro 2016 qualifier in Kyiv’s Olympic Stadium on Sept. 8 that ended 1-0 in Slovakia’s favor. (ffu.org.ua)
Following the half, Ukraine reasserted itself with quicker play, despite the absence of injured forward Yevhen Konopolyanka. Also injured was Anatoliy Tymoshchuk of Zenit Saint Petersburg.
Edmar had the best chances for Ukraine in the 2nd. He threatened in the 66th with a volley that misfired following a free kick. His header earlier in the 51st hit the far post. The Brazilian-born midfielder was also the near-playmaker in other chances in the box.
Yet Slovakia pulled off a tough win away in Kyiv. Ukraine’s next Euro 2016 qualifier is an away match against Belarus on Oct. 9.
(Kyiv Post editor Mark Rachkevych can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org).