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The Toe Poke

Rebrov has a point to prove

Sergei Rebrov will be doubly motivated to impress against England on Wednesday. Having arrived on these shores four years ago to join Spurs, the Ukrainian was forced to endure an unhappy spell under Glenn Hoddle, which saw him fade from the limelight.

Instead, came an 18-month loan with Turkish champions Fenerbahce, but throughout his exile he made no secret of his desire to return to England. A month ago he got his wish, signing a four-year deal with West Ham.

His determination to prove that he belongs in English football is greater than ever. And helping to plot England's downfall at St. James Park on Wednesday night will be a great way to prove the detractors wrong.

'The game here is all about passion and commitment, which is why so many people round the world love it. It was one of the reasons I wanted to come back and play here so much. The game against England should be interesting. I'm looking forward to it.

With close friend Andrei Shevchenko, Rebrov once formed one of Europe's deadliest strike partnerships, both for Dynamo Kiev and the Ukrainian national team. The goals in the last two years have, however, have dried up, and more generally the national team has endured a lean few years. In the last year Ukraine have slipped thirty places in the FIFA rankings in less than a year - from 47th in October 2003, to 77th in July.

'In recent years it seems we've just been lacking that little bit of something extra,' ponders the Ukrainian. 'Sometimes we've just been unlucky. Against France we didn't play badly, and we conceded a goal in the dying minutes.'

Most Ukrainians would love to see a regeneration of the Shevchenko-Rebrov partnership. Their 35 goals for the national team makes them the country's top two all-time scorers (with 22 and 13 respectively). But, with Rebrov re-cast as a midfield wideman in recent times that seems unlikely.

'I'd love to think we could play together the way we played before. When we were up front together for Dynamo [Kiev], it definitely benefited the national team. But then most of the team came from Dynamo. Recently at club level and for the national team I've tended to play on the right of midfield and not up front, and Andrei has played with a number of different partners.'

Eleven months ago, after the resignation of coach Leonid Buriak, the Ukrainian Football Federation turned to former European Footballer of the Year and USSR's record goalscorer, Oleg Blokhin to turn things round and solve the goal drought.

Rebrov believes that, while the appointment of Blokhin is certainly a positive step, there are systemic factors hindering the progress of the national team.

'Unfortunately, in the domestic championship there is no limit on the number of foreigners. Sometimes the top two teams Dynamo and Shakhtar have only a couple of Ukrainians on the pitch, and there's no doubt that the national team is suffering as a result.

'The only team bringing through Ukrainian players at the moment are Dnipro, who finished third last season, and who are starting to challenge the big two. The bottom line is that players need to be given experience at club level, if they are to stand a chance of making the grade at international level.'

I think Greece were fortunate in that several of their opponents in Portugal underestimated them. But they are not a world-class team.
Sergei Rebrov

Rebrov's point is confirmed by the composition of Blokhin's 20-man squad for the England game, which contains no less than seven players from Dnipro.

'Blokhin himself is saying that because of the number of foreigners in the league, building a strong national team is extremely difficult. He is doing his best to blood young players, and is experimenting with his line-up.

'But already there has been pressure from the media and the fans who don't always understand that you can't change things overnight. Changing the coach every six months isn't going to make things better. He needs time. Blokhin is a good specialist - there was no-one better qualified to take the job. And he is placing emphasis on youth - that's a good thing.

'The under-19s finished third in the European championships [they lost on penalties to eventual tournament winners Spain in the semi-finals], so in the longer term there is potential.'

'Playing for the national team has always meant a lot to me. The fact that I'm back playing at a club where I feel part of things, after my experience under Hoddle [at Spurs] and in Turkey, will hopefully reflect on my performances for the Ukraine.

For Rebrov and his Ukraine team-mates, the pain of failure to qualify for Euro2004, was at least eased by the knowledge that they were edged out of qualifying by eventual champions, Greece. And the striker says that, had his team not conceded a late goal in Athens, it would have been Ukraine and not the Greeks booking their flights to Portugal.

'We beat Greece 2-0 at home, and should have got a result over there. We had several good chances, and then conceded the winner in the last five minutes. I think Greece were fortunate in that several of their opponents in Portugal underestimated them. But they are not a world-class team. They played from defence, were very disciplined, and utilised their counterattacks well - beating teams like that is always very difficult.

'We'll be trying to qualify for the World Cup in 2006, but again we're in a very tough group. I'd say there are three or four teams in there with an equal chance of making it through. So it would be foolish to say that we're definitely going to do it. But, for the youngsters coming through, games against opposition such as France and England will provide them with a steep learning curve - they will be gaining a lot of experience, and this can only stand them, and the team, in good stead.'

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