MARIBOR, SLOVENIA (Reuters) – Ukraine qualified for the 2016 European Championship finals after overcoming an early blow to secure a nervy and at times fractious 1-1 draw in Slovenia that gave them a 3-1 aggregate playoff win on Tuesday.
Forward Andriy Yarmolekno scored in the seventh minute of second-half stoppage time for Ukraine to cancel out Slovenia captain Bostjan Cesar’s early opener for the home side.
Shortly before Yarmolenko’s goal, which sealed the tie, Slovenia had right back Miso Brecko sent off for a reckless challenge on Yevhen Konoplyanka.
The outcome of a scrappy affair was also sweet revenge for Ukraine after they suffered a 3-2 aggregate defeat by Slovenia in the Euro 2000 playoffs, when the former Yugoslav republic reached their first major tournament as an independent nation.
“There were lots of emotions out there from both sides and now we need to restore them,” Ukraine coach Myhaylo Fomenko told the country’s national television.
“We did not expect anything else as a Euro 2016 spot was at stake. I am grateful that my players did not fall through after conceding a quick goal and managed to withstand the pressure.”
The Slovenians launched waves of attacks from the start and Cesar converted their first chance, heading in from close-range after some poor defending by Ukraine.
Goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov failed to deal with a teasing cross by Valter Birsa and after a visiting defender blocked Milivoje Novakovic’s effort, the ball fell kindly for Cesar.
The home team’s keeper Samir Handanovic produced a pair of good saves either side of the goal, keeping out a swerving Konoplyanka free kick before parrying a shot by striker Yevhen Seleznyov.
Slovenia came close to levelling the tie on aggregate when midfielder Nejc Pecnik’s fierce shot cannoned off a static Pyatov shortly before halftime.
Handanovic again denied Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko while defender Yaroslav Rakitskiy volleyed inches over the bar as Ukraine gained the upper hand after the break.
The visitors were nearly punished several minutes later, when Cesar was left unmarked at the far post for a free header which Pyatov somehow kept out.
Ukraine then survived a fierce Slovenia onslaught as substitute Zlatan Ljubijankic had a shot blocked and the home side forced a flurry of corners in the dying minutes.
With tempers occasionally flaring on the pitch, Slovenia’s fans hurled several flares into Ukraine’s penalty box in the closing stages, much to the dismay of the home team’s players and coach Srecko Katanec.
Following Brecko’s dismissal, Kevin Kampl slipped and lost possession in the centre circle allowing three Ukrainian players to race clear, before Yarmolenko was presented with a simple tap-in.
After the final whistle, Konoplyanka slammed the hosts for what he saw as spoiling tactics.
“Slovenia did not play football, they just provoked, spat and elbowed and that’s why I am twice as happy to have gone through,” he said.
“I told everyone before the game that we would qualify for Euro 2016 because we are the team that wanted to play football.”
(Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic in Belgrade; Additional reporting by Igor Nitsak; editing by Toby Davis)