Sergiy Rebrov’s men fell just short in a 2-1 loss to reigning champions Italy last time out, while their visitors strolled past whipping boys Malta 2-0.
After ending England’s 100% record in Euros qualifying while being egged on by a raucous Wroclaw crowd – holding the Three Lions to a 1-1 draw thanks to Oleksandr Zinchenko – Ukraine sought to go one better by getting one over Italy in the Azzurri’s own backyard.
However, Inter Milan’s Davide Frattesi used his San Siro familiarity to his advantage to score twice inside the opening half an hour, and even though Andriy Yarmolenko reduced the arrears on the stroke of half time, Ukraine’s efforts in the second 45 were futile.
While there were plenty of positives for Rebrov and co to take from their pair of showdowns with the Euro 2020 finalists, taking just one point from six on offer has seen the Blue and Yellow demoted to third place in the section, which would condemn them to a first Euros year without major tournament football since 2008.
One of three sides sat on seven points in the intriguing section, Ukraine are both above North Macedonia and below Italy on account of their head-to-head records, but the Azzurri have played a game fewer than the rest of their Group C foes, leaving the Blue and Yellow’s fate out of their own hands.
A tense 1-0 win over a pointless Malta crop in June was not one to remember for the Ukrainians either, but they are unbeaten in seven successive Euros qualifiers as the designated ‘home’ team, and if their exploits in Poland last month are anything to go by, playing on unfamiliar territory in Prague should not faze Rebrov’s team either.
Still in with a strong shot of making it back-to-back appearances at the European Championships, North Macedonia kept pace with holders Italy and their upcoming opponents by putting two goals past basement boys Malta without reply on matchday five.
On the back of holding Italy to a highly respectable 1-1 draw – in which Enis Bardhi came up with an 81st-minute leveller – the captain helped the Lions put the tie to bed against Malta before the half-time whistle sounded, setting up Eljif Elmas within five minutes before also picking out Jovan Manev not long after.
Refusing to dwell on their 7-0 dismantling at the hands of England, North Macedonia may be bottom but one in Group C – only clear of already-eliminated Malta – but victory on Saturday could propel Blagoja Milevski’s side into the second qualification spot if Malta can defy the odds and upset Italy.
Such an unfeasible scenario may be incredibly unlikely to occur, but the world’s 66th-ranked nation cannot be knocked out of contention no matter what transpires this weekend, and only two of their last eight Euros qualifying games have ended in defeat.
However, one of those beatings was a gut-wrenching 3-2 loss to Ukraine four months ago, where the Lynxes led 2-0 heading into the final half-hour before an astounding Ukraine comeback saw Ilya Zabarnyi, Yukhym Konoplya and Viktor Tsygankov propelled the Blue and Yellow to a fourth successive win over Saturday’s visitors.
Ukraine Euro Champ Qualifying form:
Ukraine form (all competitions):
North Macedonia Euro Champ Qualifying form:
North Macedonia form (all competitions):
We say: Ukraine 2-1 North Macedonia
The withdrawals of key attackers Yarmolenko and Tsygankov was not on Rebrov’s bingo card for October’s crucial fixtures, but Mudryk and Ruslan Malinovskyi represent competent alternatives for a side who gave runaway leaders England a good run for their money last month.
Revenge will be on the minds of North Macedonia following June’s late collapse, but we still have faith in Ukraine to come up trumps in a tight contest and open up a healthy lead over the Lynxes in Group C.