Luciano Spalletti is calling it a “final” and, for war-torn Ukraine, on a sporting level victory would be a statement like no other.
Italian coach Spalletti has promised to maintain the Azzurri’s high-risk approach in Monday’s winner-takes-all Euro 2024 qualifier in Leverkusen – even if the price could be missing out on yet another major tournament if they lose.
Friday night’s 5-2 win against North Macedonia took Spalletti’s men ahead of Ukraine in the race to qualify automatically as group runners-up behind England.
A draw will be enough for the Italians, who failed to reach the last two World Cup finals in Russia and Qatar, to join the party without going through the high-wire torture of a play-off.
But Ukraine, playing almost 1,200 miles from Kyiv at the home of surprise Bundesliga leaders Bayer Leverkusen, will draw on the vast support of more than a million refugees who have sought sanctuary in Germany since Russia’s invasion of their sovereign homeland.
Shakhtar Donetsk have played their Champions League home games to large crowds in their adopted home of Hamburg’s Volkspark Stadium, and the Bayer Arena will be awash with gold-and-blue for a rally of defiance thinly disguised as a football match.
It would be little short of a sporting miracle if Ukraine reached Euro 2024 without playing a minute of their qualifying campaign on home soil.
Ukrainian football royalty Andriy Shevchenko, the country’s record goalscorer and former national coach – appointed as a special adviser to president Volodymyr Zelensky two months ago – says their success has been to achieve a measure of “normality” against a backdrop of war.
The ex-Chelsea striker said: “I mean, we try to live, we try to live a normal life. But there’s going to be sirens, now the cold is coming and I think we all know that the Russians try to hit our important energy systems.
“I go back to Ukraine about once a month and when you go there, you know what you expect – because it’s the worst. You know that there’s going to be sirens, there’s going to be a chance that the rockets and drones will come, but we don’t give up.
“We are united and we just have to be together to bring attention to the rest of the world help Ukraine, but football goes on. During the war we were playing in the Ukrainian Premier League and it’s a big achievement for Shakhtar to continue to play in the Champions League.
“For us, every time a Ukrainian team is playing is also a kind of reminder about the war in our country.”
As a warning to Italy, Ukraine have lost just one of their last seven games – although that was a 2-1 defeat by the Azzurri in Milan. Although a clean sheet or a draw would be enough, the Italians are promising to ditch their innate caution and maintain Spalletti’s culture of attack being their best form of defence.
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Juventus forward Federico Chiesa, who scored twice against North Macedonia, said: “We are more positive under Spalletti. We take a few more risks in defence. “We want to play against Ukraine with this mentality and win in Leverkusen. We must not miss this goal.”
He revealed Jorginho will remain Italy’s first-choice penalty-taker, despite the Arsenal midfielder equalling an unwanted record when he missed another one against North Macedonia.
Jorginho’s third consecutive blank from the spot matched Alessandro Altobelli’s trio of misses in 1986, but Spalletti inisted: “He remains a special penalty taker for Italy. I told him that he will take the next penalty as well and he said yes.”
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