Ukraine eye Euro 2016 berth after first leg win against Slovenia
Ukraine's hopes of finally ending their play-off hoodoo and qualifying for Euro 2016 were given a huge boost with a 2-0 first-leg victory over Slovenia in Lviv.
The Ukrainians have failed to progress for a major international tournament via the play-offs on five occasions, with Slovenia among the countries who have dashed their dream in two-legged contests in a tie to qualify for Euro 2000. However, Mykhaylo Fomenko's men are well placed to be in France next summer after Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Seleznyov scored in either half.
The cushion they will take to Slovenia on Tuesday could have been even greater, though, yet Denys Garmash and Seleznyov were unable to add a third goal against the lackluster visitors. Yarmolenko was his nation's top scorer in qualifying and it was the Dynamo Kiev winger who struck first 22 minutes in.
Yevhen Konoplyanka's corner was only half-cleared and the Sevilla midfielder crossed the ball back into the box, where Samir Handanovic's punch fell to Yarmolenko at the back post. Both Rene Krhin and Jasmin Kurtic believed the 26-year-old was going to pull the trigger with his left foot, but he feigned a shot and moved the ball on to his right to rifle past Handanovic and into the far corner.
Up until that point the visitors had showed little attacking threat, and a half-volley from Josip Ilicic that sailed over the top in the 28th minute was their first attempt on goal. They had a great chance to pull level before the half-hour mark, though, when Valter Birsa fed an unmarked Milivoje Novakovic inside the area but his first touch was appalling and the ball span through to goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov.
Handanovic made a one-handed save from Serhiy Rybalka's long-range try and pushed Garmash's header from another Konoplyanka header over the top as Ukraine ended the first period on top. And it was no surprise to see the home side double their lead nine minutes after the break.
Again Yarmolenko was involved, finding an overlapping Artem Fedetskiy with a pass inside the full-back, and his ball across the six-yard box found Seleznyov sliding in to score from virtually on the line. The Dnipro forward immediately checked for an offside flag, which was not forthcoming, and he appeared to be level with the last man when Fedetskiy's center was delivered.
Having put the game to bed, Ukraine looked to sew up the tie too. Garmash's header from close range was directed straight at Handanovic and Seleznyov's placed attempt came back off a post, with Bojan Jokic clearing the danger as Yarmolenko lurked for the rebound.
Konoplyanka was then allowed to drive into the box but he got his shot all wrong and although Ukraine won an eighth successive international in Lviv, Slovenia will feel fortunate to escape with just a two-goal deficit ahead of the return leg.