In September 2009, a young, up-and-coming Andriy Yarmolenko made his international debut for Ukraine during a 2010 FIFA World Cup qualification game. The then-20-year-old marked the occasion, managing to score the sixth and final goal for Ukraine in an emphatic 6-0 win over Andorra.
The key striker for Ukraine in that game? Andriy Shevchenko, AC Milan legend and 2004 Ballon d’Or winner. Shevchenko is known as ‘Mr. Ukraine’ to many who watched him play – he is the country’s all-time leading goal scorer with 48 goals and one of their international icons.
Fast forward to Euro 2020 and Shevchenko is Ukraine’s manager while Yarmolenko has taken up the role of ‘Mr Ukraine’ now. Both players’ international careers are poetically intertwined, and they combined for a memorable European Championship run, one that will live long in the hearts of Ukrainian football fans.
The now-31-year-old was unequivocally Ukraine’s most valuable player and was at the heart of The Blue and Yellow’s successes during Euro 2020. Scoring and assisting twice in five games, Yarmolenko carried his national team to the quarter finals, where they were unfortunately sent crashing out by a confident England side 4-0.
Take nothing away from Yarmolenko and Ukraine though – they had an incredible tournament, despite an ugly end.
Prior to Euro 2020, many had ruled Ukraine out as a group stage casualty, despite them topping their qualifying group which included tournament favourites Portugal.
Their fighting spirit shone through right from the off. It was clear in their very first game that, if they were to go out, they would do so fighting. The fact that they lasted the longest in the tournament out of all the teams in their group was testament to that.
Indeed, such a conclusion could be drawn from their very first game. Against a dangerous Oranje side under the tutelage of Frank De Boer and captain Georginio Wijnaldum, Ukraine were submitted to a two-goal deficit.
Ukraine never gave up though, and they fought back to level the game at 2-2. The player who inspired their comeback? Yarmolenko. The first Ukraine goal came courtesy of some neat link-up play between Yarmolenko and Roman Yaremchuk, before the West Ham winger curled the ball sensationally into the top left corner from range using his favoured left foot. It was not just his goal that helped Ukraine though, his performance as a whole was energetic and positive.
Andriy Yarmolenko is a footballer with… a mentality that allows him to thrive on such a grand stage
– David Moyes
The Blue and Yellow did, ultimately, lose the game 3-2 due to some lapses in concentration defensively, but their mentality to fight back from two goals down cannot be overstated. Yarmolenko, in particular established himself as ‘one to watch’ for the tournament, thanks to his brilliant display.
“Andriy Yarmolenko is a footballer with terrific technical ability and a mentality that allows him to thrive on such a grand stage. He is Ukraine’s inspiration at these finals, just as he has been for years,” West Ham manager David Moyes wrote.
His excellence was on display once again in a 2-1 victory over North Macedonia, a game which showcased the telepathic connection between Yaremchuk and Yarmolenko. Both players linked up well, especially for Ukraine’s second goal. Yarmolenko drifted out wide before deflecting a pass straight into the path of Yaremchuk, who tucked the chance away clinically.
With a chance to seal their qualification from the group stage with a point, Ukraine lost 1-0 to Austria. However, luck was on their side as they managed to qualify as a wildcard team, despite earning just three points over the group stage.
In their first knockout game against Sweden, Ukraine introduced a new set up which left Yarmolenko and Yaremchuk as their two forwards. With Yaremchuk occupying the ‘target man’, central role, Yarmolenko was given the freedom to roam the attacking third. Such freedom resulted in the opening goal for Ukraine, as Yarmolenko delivered an outstanding outside-of-the-boot cross into the run of captain Oleksandr Zinchenko, who volleyed home convincingly.
Picking up a slight knock towards the end of the game, Yarmolenko was substituted, but was happy to see his team win 2-1 after extra time.
The win set up a difficult tie against England in the quarter finals. A tie that would prove too much of a challenge for Shevchenko’s Ukraine.
Ukraine’s dream Euro 2020 campaign was ultimately shattered by a 4-0 loss to England, who were able to keep the dangerous Yarmolenko and Yaremchuk at bay for the majority of the game. In truth, Ukraine were never the favourites going into this game, and had done superbly to make it this far anyway.
In the fourth instalment of RAW Sport’s The Football and Hockey Show, I named Yarmolenko as the most valuable player for Ukraine and, despite Ukraine crashing out of the tournament, I still stand by that judgement. To make it so far in the tournament was a miracle already, and it was all reliant on the bright performances of Yarmolenko.
Yarmolenko is currently Ukraine’s second all-time top scorer with 42 goals
Sure, there are some fantastic players in the competition. Raheem Sterling led a solid England team in goals and Leonardo Spinazzola was a difference maker for Italy, but no one has quite inspired their team like Yarmolenko. Not only did all of Ukraine’s attacking threat go through Yarmolenko, their success did too.
Yarmolenko is currently Ukraine’s second all-time top scorer with 42 goals (with two of those from Euro 2020). His tally puts him just six goals behind his manager Shevchenko.
While the former Borussia Dortmund winger does not boast the same club success that his boss had, both will be remembered for their impressive performances on the international stage that lifted and carried their nation.
“You have players who are not the most important players at their clubs, but they become fundamental for their countries. With Yarmolenko, it is this feeling,” said Jose Mourinho.
At 31, it will be interesting to see if Yarmolenko will feature in Shevchenko’s plans for the 2022 World Cup. While he has been a pivotal part of the Ukraine team this tournament, his club performances have been dipping ever since leaving Dynamo Kyiv.
While Ukraine fans will undoubtedly be hoping that they can see more of Yarmolenko’s signature left foot, it will be up to Shevchenko to see if he still has faith in his star man to produce the goods once again in a year’s time.
One thing is for sure though – Yarmolenko delivered at Euro 2020 and was the most valuable player for Ukraine by a longshot.