Scotland will look to continue their 100% start to 2023 World Cup Qualifying with a home victory over Ukraine, the side that many have pinpointed as our main rivals for a play off spot with a free-scoring Spain positioning themselves as favourites for the group.
It has been a time of transition for the Ukrainians with former Champions League winning Barcelona boss Louis Cortés appointed just eleven days ago following the dismissal of former international midfielder Natalya Zinchenko. Chris Marshall takes a look at Friday night’s opponents before a clash key to both sides chances of making it through to the next stage of a long and winding UEFA qualifying process as Scotland look to move nine points clear of their Group B rivals.
LAST TIME WE FACED UKRAINE
We only have to rewind back to March 2020 to find the last time the two nations faced each other as Scotland ran out 3-0 winners on their way to winning the Pinatar Cup. A well taken double from Martha Thomas, who misses these qualifiers due to injury, and a Claire Emslie strike secured what was a comfortable victory over a nation Scotland lost both home and away to during Euro 2009 qualifying.
WORLD CUP QUALIFYING RESULTS SO FAR
It’s been as expected for Ukraine from their two qualifiers to date. Scotland already had six points on the board by the time the Ukrainians made their debut at home to the Faroe Islands. Their 4-0 victory a similar challenge to the one that faced Scotland during their 7-1 victory over the same opposition before they were comfortablu defeated 6-0 by group leaders Spain to leave them with one win and one defeat from their opening two matches. A pair of results that saw boss Natalya Zinchenko, who had led the Ukranians to the Euro 2022 play-offs, dismissed just a couple of weeks ago.
The Head Coach
With Zinchenko relieved of her duties the Ukrainian FA have completed somewhat of a coup with the capture of former Barcelona Head Coach Lluis Cortés. A student of the world renowned La Masia academy he was assistant to Fran Sanchéz before taking the reins in 2019 leading the Catalan club to two Primeria Division titles and a first ever Champions League triumph following a devastating 4-0 final victory over Chelsea in Gothenburg.
A coach well known to Scotland counterpart Pedro Martinez Losa it will be interesting to see how quickly he can implement the oppressive passing style that became the blueprint for Barcelona’s success during his tenure and, with lesser talents at his disposal, if it is a style that can be replicated on short notice given the recency in which he has taken on the role. Either way, the appointment of a coach who has been nominated for a FIFA Best Award is certainly one that has made people sit up and take notice.
With just two games played and a new coach in role it will be interesting to see how the Ukrainians go about the task of scoring against a defence they failed to get past the last time the two sides met.
Against the Faroe Islands they struggled to break defensive lines and of the four goals scored three were the result of crosses launched into the box, the third of which came as the nordic minnows were waiting to replace the injured Maria Biskopstø.
Canadian-born striker Nicole Kozlova misses out after leading the line against Faroes Islands and Spain with her display against the Faroes particularly spritely in a game where she scored the opening goal but in midfielders Olha Ovdiychuk (formerly of Atlético Madrid) and Yana Kalinina they have players who have scored for fun domestically while Linköpings forward Nadiia Kunina is one of the rising stars of the Ukrainian game.
From deep Fiorentina full back Darya Kravets will hope to provide the same kind of threat that Scotland will look for from Nicola Docherty and Rachel McLauchlan but they perhaps lack a player of the guile Scotland possess in the final third.
Against Spain the Ukrainians lined up in a 5-4-1 formation but the expectation should be that Cortés will look to push them onto the front foot with the Hungarian press a reference to how his side could make things difficult for Scotland.
Despite the five strung out across the back it was down the flanks where the Spanish found the greatest success, moving play from side to side, Alexia Putellas pulling the strings. In particular, full back Olha Basanska was targeted with two second half goals in quick succession coming down her side. It is an area that Scotland should look to exploit but perhaps the biggest area for concern that Cortés will have was the regularity in which the defence would switch off. Spain’s opener was a combination of ball watching, poor tracking of midfield arrivals and a well taken finish from Alexia. While Alba Redondo’s injury time strike could be put down to the game being gone, the way in which that opener was conceded with just nine minutes on the clock suggests a defence that can be got at early despite the presence of the vastly experienced Daryna Apanaschenko at it’s heart.
While the arrival of Lluis Cortés brings an element of the unknown to Friday night’s visitors it is a side that too is perhaps in transition and at a point where Scotland should be able to take advantage, particularly amongst the increasingly familiar surrounds of Hampden. Victory will go a long to hopefully guaranteeing a least a play-off with the huge challenge of Spain in Seville to come next week and it is one that is certainly achievable.
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MON EH SCOTLAND!