Euro 2012: Ukraine feeling the pressure in opener vs Sweden

The Olympic Stadium will turn into a raucous sea of blue and yellow on Monday when Ukraine takes on Sweden at the European Championship.

Updated: June 11, 2012 12:47 IST
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Kiev, Ukraine: The Olympic Stadium will turn into a raucous sea of blue and yellow on Monday when Ukraine takes on Sweden at the European Championship.

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While both teams sport the same colors, there's no doubt who'll be feeling the most support from the crowd. Whether that will be a help or a hindrance, though, remains to be seen.

Ukraine is feeling the immense pressure that comes with hosting its first major tournament, and knows that the home fans will accept nothing less than a win. Sweden coach Erik Hamren believes the host usually does well in its opening game, with home-field advantage potentially offsetting whatever edge the Swedes may have when it comes to skill.

Ukraine coach Oleg Blokhin has called on the national press "not to raise expectations too high" despite being fully aware of the meaning this tournament has for the 45 million fans in the country.

"As Ukraine is the host, then you are expected to win," Blokhin said through a translator. "I understand my full responsibility. I know what the country expects from us ... So I am telling the players that they have to defend the honor of the nation."

Veteran Sweden defender Olof Mellberg still remembers playing co-host Belgium in Sweden's opening game at Euro 2000, which resulted in a 2-1 loss. Mellberg, who is now entering his sixth major tournament, said taking the crowd out of the game quickly could be decisive.

"There's a lot of pressure on everyone, us too," Mellberg said. "But of course, if the home nation gets a good start and gets support from the crowd, that's often an extra benefit. We'll try to make sure they don't get that."

Adding to the pressure is the fact that this is a game that both teams need to win to have a realistic chance of advancing from Group D, which also includes France and England. Even a draw will be seen as a setback for both teams, as they will then likely have to win at least one of the games against the two group favorites.

Get a win on Monday, though, and two draws in the remaining games could be enough to go through.

Blokhin went so far as to say that the team that loses Monday's match is virtually out of the competition. That could prove extra costly for Ukraine, as the home fans' interest in the event could decline if their team was left without a chance just four days into the tournament. The other co-host, Poland, drew 1-1 with Greece on Friday in Group A.

"The fans expect us to win every match," Ukraine striker Andriy Voronin said. "But our main task will be to survive the group stage. Then everything can happen."

On paper, Sweden has the better team. Led by AC Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Swedes have a superstar that is in his prime, having scored a career-high 28 goals in Serie A this past season. Ukraine's biggest star, on the other hand, is well past his best scoring days. Still, captain Andriy Shevchenko enjoys a healthy respect among his opponents, and his leadership could help inspire the Ukrainian team as it looks for an upset.

"It's hard to look past a player like Shevchenko," Sweden winger Sebastian Larsson said when asked about who posed the biggest threat among the Ukrainians. "And also their wingers. They play a lot on the wings and they're very skillful and quick players."

Ukraine's preparations were far from impressive, with back-to-back losses against Austria and Turkey in friendlies, and with 10 players falling ill after allegedly eating a bad salad in a German hotel.

All the players recovered within two days, but it's still hard to predict what the starting XI will be against Sweden.

If Blokhin and his team had any doubt about what the game means to the country, President Viktor Yanukovych gave them a reminder when he visited the training camp on Friday.

"We really want you to succeed. We will be present at all your matches," the president said. "You must show fighting spirit."

So, no pressure then.

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