Ukraine’s footballers made a war-torn nation proud by beating Scotland in their first competitive clash since Russia’s invasion, but the job of getting to the World Cup is only half done ahead of Sunday’s play-off final against Wales.
A place in Qatar later this year is the prize for the winners at the Cardiff City Stadium, where history also beckons for the home side.
Wales have not reached a World Cup since 1958 and manager Rob Page has described the Ukraine clash as “the biggest match in Welsh history”.
The same could be said for different reasons for Ukraine as they aim to provide some solace and national pride to a country devastated by Russian aggression.
“We played for those who fight in trenches, who fight with their last drop of blood. We played for Ukrainians who suffer every day,” said Ukraine coach Oleksandr Petrakov after his side outclassed Scotland to win 3-1 in Glasgow on Wednesday.
“We still have the Wales game in front of us. We will do everything to make Ukrainians proud.”
Petrakov admitted to being emotionally “empty” in the aftermath of victory at Hampden Park.
However, the 64-year-old, who tried to sign up to Ukraine’s territorial defence when war broke out, and his players must summon another huge effort to deliver their World Cup dream.
Six of the starting line-up against Scotland are still contracted to Ukrainian clubs and had not played a competitive game this year.
As Artem Dovbyk broke clear to score the visitors’ third goal with the final kick of the game, his teammates sank to their knees in exhaustion rather than joining in the celebrations.
“We all understand that the game with Wales will no longer be about physical condition or tactics, it will be a game of survival,” said Oleksandr Zinchenko.
“Everyone will fight to the end and give their all, because we will play for our country.”
– Last World Cup chance for Bale –
Ukraine’s visit to Scotland was postponed from March, just weeks after the war began, to give the visitors the chance to fulfil the fixture.
But that change could still have a lasting effect on who joins England, USA and Iran in Group B of the World Cup.
Wales beat Austria in their play-off semi-final three months ago thanks to Gareth Bale’s brilliant double and were able to name a second-string side for their 2-1 Nations League defeat by Poland on Wednesday.
Bale and Aaron Ramsey were among the key players given the night off to keep them fresh for Sunday.
“We are well aware of the situation that Ukraine is in right now, and it must be incredibly tough to be in their shoes,” said Tottenham defender Ben Davies.
“We know it will be an emotional event and a lot of people will be wanting some good news for Ukraine, but we have to try and stay out of that and focus on 90 minutes of football.”
Bale and Ramsey were among the heroes of a remarkable run to the semi-finals of Euro 2016, but this will almost certainly be their final chance at making a World Cup.
Page’s men boast a formidable record at home, where they are unbeaten in 18 games stretching back to 2018.
“It is something that we’ve been desperate to do for 50-60 years,” added Davies.
“It is major for us. It is a dream for our team and we’ve put ourselves in a situation where we are one game away, and the focus for us will be purely on that.”