| Michael Yokhin
| Ukraine Expert
are in need of a rebuild after losing their Serie A title to Juventus last season, and while keeping hold of Thiago Silva is a huge boost, bringing in Andriy Yarmolenko could prove a crucial move if they are to clinch a 19th Scudetto.
There can no bigger compliment for Yarmolenko, who is destined to fulfill his most sacred dream. As a child, he always wanted to follow in the footsteps of his celebrated idol Andriy Shevchenko, and now, after learning at his side for three years at Dinamo Kiev, he is sharing the big stage with him on his way to superstardom.
It was not always easy for Yarmolenko, though. When first admitted into Dinamo's academy at the age of 13, he was released a year later, deemed to be too weak physically. A few years later he was back with a bang, with coach Anatoly Demyanenko saying in 2006: "I was told that our scouts found a lad, 80 miles away from Kiev, who is already called a 'second Shevchenko'."
Despite scoring on his debut, Yarmolenko mostly spent two seasons on the bench before new coach, the gloriously-moustached Russian Valery Gazzaev, handed him a place in the starting line-up. It didn't immediately work out as the youngster squandered easy scoring opportunities, and was mercilessly criticized in the press.
Gazzaev never gave up, and gradually Yarmolenko started to repay him for his patience. During his second full season in 2010-11, his starting place was no longer disputed. He had become a genuine star. Under Dinamo's current coach, Yuri Syomin, his progress has been even more evident.
Yarmolenko is fast, technically sound, and extremely versatile. At Dinamo Kiev he is often deployed on the left wing, with Oleg Gusev playing on the right, and the two interchange throughout a match. At times Gazzaev even tried to explore the possibility of deploying Yarmolenko as a left-back but those experiments did not last long due to his attacking importance.
In the national team, the left side is occupied by another rising star, Yevhen Konoplyanka, and thus Yarmolenko mostly plays on the right, which suits him better. "It is more comfortable for me to attack from the right," he says. Naturally left-footed, his play sometimes resembles that of Arjen Robben, as he is likely to cut inside and shoot. However, he is also comfortable with his right foot, and that makes his overall play less predictable than that of the Dutchman.
The winger was voted the best Ukraininan player in 2011 by his fellow colleagues. Shevchenko in particular is full of praise for his young partner, saying in February: "Yarmolenko is a great player, talented and quick. Even though he doesn’t play in my position up front, he still manages to score plenty of goals. If he works hard, he could reach the highest level like I did. Euro 2012 could be his tournament." National coach Oleg Blokhin agreed: "On his day, Yarmolenko is unstoppable."
Yarmolenko’s rise to prominence with the national team, however, has been far from smooth. He scored on his debut against Andorra in 2009, and soon became a regular, but in 2011, when Blokhin came in, a significant player-coach rift developed.
Last August, after Yarmolenko didn’t arrive at a national team training camp due to a claimed injury but then proceeded to play for his club soon after, Blokhin made no attempt to hide his suspicions and made it clear that the midfielder’s future in the team was in doubt. The affair was quickly forgotten as a recalled Yarmolenko scored Ukraine's fastest ever goal, after just 15 seconds, in a match against Uruguay in September.
That form continued with as he found the net in an entertaining 3-3 draw with Germany, and a 3-2 win in Israel. Eight goals in 21 international matches is a great record for a young star, especially as he is by no means an out-and-out striker. On the contrary, these days the 22-year-old is taking special pleasure in recording assists.
But for Shevchenko’s brace, Yarmolenko’s tireless and intelligent contribution against Sweden would certainly have seen him voted man of the match. He combined with right-back Gusev to devastating effect to make the life of Swedish full-back Martin Olsson unbearably difficult.
With Yarmolenko frequently opening up pockets of space for Gusev to roam into, Ukraine were always dangerous from the right, and it came as no surprise when Yarmolenko was the man who delivered the perfect cross for Shevchenko to head past Andreas Isaksson.
Long before the European Championship started, Yarmolenko attracted interest from the top European sides. Napoli reportedly offered €10 million for him in the January transfer window while Arsene Wenger is also thought to be a big fan.
According to some reports in Italy and Ukraine, however, AC Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani is expected to pay a visit to Kiev to close a deal that could be worth €15m. That would certainly crown Yarmolenko as the ultimate replacement for Shevchenko and the new Ukrainian star at San Siro.
If the move does occur, it will place quite a burden on Yarmolenko’s shoulders. It will be fascinating to discover whether he is mentally strong enough to cope with it. After all, just a couple of years ago he refused to give a post-game interview and when told that it is part of footballer’s job promptly replied: "Then I am not a footballer."
Right now, Yarmolenko and Gusev are preparing to take on France and their left-back Patrice Evra, a much tougher and more experienced proposition than Sweden's Olsson. Possible future teammate Philippe Mexes will also be facing him. Both may only be able to watch in admiration as Yarmolenko takes the tournament by storm.