Spain, Ukraine, Switzerland to slug it out

Ukraine coach Oleg Blokhin was in a defiant mood on Sunday as he discussed his side's must-win Group H fixture against Saudi Arabia at the FIFA World Cup Stadium in Hamburg on Monday, after training for the first time at the same venue on Sunday.

Hamburg, June 19: Ukraine coach Oleg Blokhin was in a defiant mood on Sunday as he discussed his side's must-win Group H fixture against Saudi Arabia at the FIFA World Cup Stadium in Hamburg on Monday, after training for the first time at the same venue on Sunday.
Blokhin, the 53-year-old former European Player of the Year in 1975, who won a record 112 international caps for the former USSR, declared that star striker Andriy Shevchenko would be fit for the clash after recovering from injury and that his squad have not come here as tourists just to make the numbers - they want to qualify for the knockout stages despite a crushing opening four-nil defeat at the hands of Spain.

It is the first-ever meeting between the two nations and the Ukraine, seeded 26th with a world ranking of 41, desperately need three points to open their World Cup account and leapfrog the Saudis and the Tunisians who have a point apiece after their opening two-all draw.

If World Cup experience alone was the measure of a team's pedigree, then Ukraine would be clearly at a disadvantage against their next opponents Saudi Arabia, a side playing on the world's biggest and most prestigious stage for the fourth time.

However, on Sunday, the disadvantage stood at one point after both teams made a disappointing start in Group H.

Coasting towards victory against Tunisia, Saudi Arabia allowed themselves to be pegged back and had to settle for a point.

If that constituted a minor disappointment, Ukraine's setback was significantly larger: after breezing through a tricky qualifying campaign en route to their first finals, they went down four-nil to a rampant and free-flowing Spain side in their opening game.

The two sides will be aiming to do better at the second time of asking at the FIFA World Cup Stadium in Hamburg on Monday - and Oleg Blokhin, the the 53-year-old former European Player of the Year in 1975, who won a record 112 international caps for the former USSR, declared that star striker Andriy Shevchenko would be fit for the clash after recovering from injury.

"Is he (Shevchenko) fit? He was out there practising and he is in good shape. He is fit and we are trying to talk to all the player personally, including him, ahead of this vital game.": Oleg Blokhin, Ukraine coach.

During the 2002 tournament, Saudi Arabia suffered the ignominy of a demoralising eight-nil defeat against Germany in their opening game.

However, the 'Sons of the Desert' made a more promising start this time round in Munich.

After going into the interval 1-0 down, Yasser Al Khatani and substitute Sami Al Jaber (with his first touch of the game) gave Marcos Paqueta's men a taste of the victory.

However, two points slipped out of their grasp when Tunisia defender Radhi Jaidi dashed Saudi hopes of a morale-boosting win in injury time.

FIFA World Cup new boys Ukraine made the worst possible start to their campaign in Leipzig where they came up against of the most impressive sides so far in the tournament, Spain.

The hopes of the Zbirna evaporated virtually from the 14th minute, when Xabi Alonso headed Spain into the lead.

David Villa added two more with a free-kick and a penalty and, with Ukraine defender Vladyslav Vashchuk sent off, the 10 men lost a fourth goal to Fernando Torres.

However, hope remains for Oleg Blokhin's men; they will feel that if they can get the better of Saudi Arabia, and Spain perform just as impressively against Tunisia, then they could yet go into the third round of matches well-placed to progress.

"The players understand that the pressure is on them and how vital tomorrow (Monday) is. We know that they are happy to be at the 2006 World Cup finals. However, we are not tourists - but players in this tournament. That disastrous four-nil defeat (against Spain) taught us a lot and we are aware of the consequences.": Oleg Blokhin, Ukraine coach.

With players of the calibre of Shevchenko, Sergei Rebrov and Andrey Voronin at his disposal, Blokhin's confidence is well-placed.

However, as we have seen time and again at this year's finals, you underestimate any country at your peril.

Sunday saw Koebi Kuhn put his Swiss team through their final paces in Dortmund - on the very same pitch where they will meet Togo.

Monday's fixture will be the second Group G match for both sides - Switzerland will be hoping to build on their 0-0 opening draw with France.

Switzerland have a young side. But under Kuhn - arguably the most successful Swiss coach ever - they qualified for the European championships for only the second time in the country's history and now are in their first World Cup finals since 1994.

And with the French faltering - victory against the African side would move the Swiss a giant stride towards the round of 16.

Spain trained for their next World Cup group game against Tunisia at the Gottlieb-Daimler Stadium in Stuttgart on Sunday (June 18th).

Luis Aragones' side are clear favourites to top the final Group G standings following a resounding 4-0 win over the Ukraine in their first game, but will they be able to repeat that fine performance against the 'Eagles of Carthage' ?

One of the greatest footballing nations yet to have lifted the World Cup, Spain made a magnificent start to this year's finals in Germany with a 4-0 thrashing of the Ukraine.

Tunisia will provide the next test for Luis Aragones' side, who will be confident of extending their unbeaten run to 24 matches and earning the win that would guarantee a place in the first knockout round.

The two sides meet for the first time ever in Stuttgart on Monday (June 19th).

Spain made little effort to disguise their first team plans at Sunday's training session at the Gottlieb-Daimler Stadium.

It will come as little surprise to see Carlos Puyol marshalling the defence with Xavi Alonso providing the creativity in midfield.

Fernando Torres and David Villa provided a potent partnership up front against Ukraine and they can expect to link up once again for the meeting with Tunisia.

That means that national captain Raul will have to settle for a place on the substitutes bench for a second game in a row.

Perhaps the most promising aspect of Spain's World Cup squad is it's strength in depth.

Youngsters Jose Antonio Reyes and 'Cesc' Fabregas are certain to be the national team's stars of the future, but they are well complemented by experience campaigners like Xavi, Michel Salgado, goalkeeper Iker Casillas and Joaquin.

If Spain fail to beat Tunisia, they would still be guaranteed a place in the last 16 with a win in their final group game against Saudi Arabia in Kaiserslautern on June 23rd.

Bureau Report

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