Future Ukrainian soccer stars: prospects on the pitch
Viktor Kovalenko, Shakhtar Donetsk
Heading into Ukraine’s opening match at Euro 2016 against Germany, it was déjà vu for two young, up-and-coming soccer stars. For the Germans it was Schalke 04’s Leroy Sane; for Ukraine, 20-year-old Viktor Kovalenko via Shakhtar Donetsk. Indeed, the two had met earlier in the season.
Their initial encounter took place in the return-leg match between Schalke and Shakhtar in the round of 32 of the UEFA Europa League. Many assumed Schalke would advance to the next round, but after a 0-0 draw in Lviv, Shakhtar had the advantage, as a draw with goals allowed Shakhtar to progress into the next round, as away goals are worth more on aggregate tallies.
Still, most experts had Schalke, with a roster of Germans around Sane, advancing with too much talent to fail to get the necessary result at home. In Germany, however, it was Shakhtar Donetsk winning in convincing fashion with a 3-0 result.
Shakhtar had gone through some serious changes in personnel and, therefore, changes in strategies. The club’s approach moved from technical football toward a more cautious, defensive approach.
Despite the changes, there were still moments of beauty in Shakhtar’s game, along with signs that the club’s new philosophy of focusing on bright young players could be working. Young attacking midfielder Kovalenko seamlessly fit into Alex Teixeira’s old position and was Shakhtar’s best player on the pitch.
Kovalenko was involved in the first two goals and then scored the third himself. He was voted man of the match, receiving a personal score of 8.6. All it took was one good match to make Shakhtar fans forget the transfer drama that surrounded the departure of Teixeira. The latter’s departure accelerated Kovalenko’s development, who is primed to become the next talent to be developed in the Ukrainian Premier League.
Born in the southern city of Kherson, Kovalenko became an important element of Shakhtar’s Europa League run, which came to an end when eventual title winners FC Sevilla eliminated the Ukrainian club in the semifinal. Shakhtar failed to win the Ukrainian Premier League title last season, but at least won the Ukrainian Cup.
In that Ukrainian Cup final it was evident that Kovalenko was quickly becoming a key contributor to Shakhtar’s midfield play. The youngster wearing No. 74 was always present to receive and distribute the ball to wingers Taison and Marlos, and striker Oleksandr Gladky.
His vision and intelligent play first became apparent at the youth level. During the 2014-2015 season he guided Shakhtar’s U-19 squad to the UEFA Youth League final, which the club lost 2-3 against London’s Chelsea club. Despite being limited, due to injury, to two substitute appearances at the UEFA Youth League final tournament in Nyon, he scored two goals and assisted on the third in the 3-1 semifinal win against Anderlecht of Belgium, then netted another goal in the final.
A few months later he captured the Adidas Golden Boot as top scorer at the U-20 World Cup in New Zealand. His first touch and superb distribution were especially noticeable at that tournament, as was his ability to add pace to the attack by joining the rush from midfield.
The hope is his scoring success translates from the junior to the senior team and he eventually can produce the offensive game Shakhtar received from the Brazilian Teixeira. Tactically speaking, if Kovalenko is given a central role in midfield, it may prove challenging to become a consistent goal scorer. There is also his young age to consider – it may take some time and maturity before Kovalenko develops a scoring touch.
Serhiy Sydorchuk, Dynamo Kyiv
Born in Zaporizhia, 25-year-old Serhiy Sydorchuk is a product of FC Metalurh Zaporizhia’s youth system. He made his debut for FC Metalurh Zaporizhia as a second-half substitute against FC Metalurh Donetsk on August 23, 2009, in the Ukrainian Premier League.
On December 21, 2012, Sydorchuk signed a five-year contract with Dynamo Kyiv. On August 11, 2013, he scored his first goal for the club in a league match versus FC Chornomorets Odesa. He made his UEFA Champions League debut in the second match of the group stage against Israeli club Maccabi Tel Aviv, a 2-0 Dynamo win.
Sydorchuk made his full international debut for Ukraine on October 9, 2014, replacing captain Ruslan Rotan in the 64th minute of a European qualifier against Belarus. During added time, he scored the second goal of a 2-0 victory, a close-range finish set up by Andriy Yarmolenko. Three days later, in the next qualifier at Arena Lviv, he scored the only goal to defeat Macedonia 1-0.
Roman Yaremchuk, FC Oleksandria
Born in Lviv, 21-year-old Roman Yaremchuk is a product of the sports schools of FC Karpaty Lviv and FC Dynamo Kyiv. Yaremchuk’s first trainers were Mykola Dudarenko at Karpaty and Oleksiy Drotsenko at Dynamo. He made his debut for FC Dynamo 2 Kyiv, entering as a second-half substitute against FC Desna Chernihiv on July 14, 2013, in the Ukrainian First League.
The striker is presently on loan to FC Oleksandria, where he has scored five goals in the current 2016-2017 season.
Oleksandr Zinchenko, PSV Eindhoven
Oleksandr Zinchenko, 20, was born in Radomyshl, Zhytomyr Oblast, and is a product of Youth Sportive School Karpatiya of his native Radomyshl, FC Monolit Illichivsk and FC Shakhtar Donetsk. He opted to sign up in the Russian Football Premier League with the promise of playing at the sport’s highest level, debuting for FC Ufa on March 20, 2015, in a match against FC Krasnodar. On July 2, 2016, Zinchenko was signed by Manchester City. On August 26, 2016, he was loaned to Dutch Eredivisie team PSV Eindhoven.
He made his debut with Eindhoven on October 1, 2016, as a substitute in a 1-1 draw against SC Heerenveen. He made his first international appearance in a UEFA Euro 2016 qualifier against Spain on October 12, 2015. Zinchenko tallied his first international goal in a friendly versus Romania in Turin, a 4-3 win for Ukraine on May 29, 2016.
He became Ukraine’s youngest player to score an international goal at the age of 19, besting Andriy Shevchenko’s record. Zinchenko was on Ukraine’s roster for Euro 2016, appearing as a substitute for Viktor Kovalenko in both of Ukraine’s first two matches.
Ihor Stelmach may be reached at