West Ham United forward Andriy Yarmolenko was delighted to lead Ukraine to their first UEFA European Championship finals victory in nine years on Thursday afternoon.
Captain of his country, the 31-year-old doubled down on his impressive opening-day display against the Netherlands with a second goal – plus a clever assist for Roman Yaremchuk – as the Blue and Yellow saw off North Macedonia 2-1 in Budapest.
The win ended a run of six successive defeats for Ukraine in Euro finals games – defeat would have yielded the longest losing streak in the competition’s history – and puts Ukraine in a strong position to avoid the group-stage eliminations they suffered in 2012 and 2016.
Having taken part in all three of Ukraine’s appearances at this tournament, accruing 96 caps for his nation, Yarmolenko is now showing the benefit of that experience, having been involved in four of Ukraine’s six goals in those tournaments.
What’s more, Yarmolenko’s quickfire first-half goal and assist mean that Yarmolenko and Yaremchuk became the first-ever duo to score in both of their side's opening two matches at a single European Championship tournament.
Speaking after Thursday's win, Yarmolenko feels he and his team-mates are doing their nation proud.
“Yes, we felt it [the support of our fans today],” Yarmolenko explained. “I want to thank the fans who supported us at the stadium.
“This is the European Championships, and there are no weak teams here. During the break, the coaching staff warned us that North Macedonia would now run forward, because they had nothing to lose.
“The Macedonians made us defend and made us nervous. We understood that we needed a victory, but we did not want to lose our lead.
“Both the guys and the coaching staff were all nervous, but it's good that we managed to keep the victory. Congratulations to all our fans with this result.
“This victory is for all Ukrainians! Today we can celebrate, and tomorrow we will start preparing for the next game.”
That crucial finale against fellow Group C hopefuls Austria will fall on Monday evening, with both teams currently level on three points – and zero goal difference, albeit with Ukraine having scored one goal more – going into the contest.
For Yarmolenko, who followed up a superb strike against the Netherlands with a simpler tap-in against North Macedonia, the opportunity is there for Ukraine to demonstrate the quality in their squad.
The 31-year-old spent a large portion of 2020/21 recovering from long-term injury, but is showing just what he is all about at this summer’s major international tournament.
“I missed football,” he admitted. “For almost a year I was healing injuries.
“This motivated me, and I purposefully prepared myself for the national team. I did a great job, came to the location of the team even earlier than needed and did a lot of work with all the guys. I want to show quality football and this requires a lot of work.
“When you don't play for a long time, you have to play three or four matches to feel the game again and regain your shape. I hope I will add more with each match. Thanks to the coaching staff for the trust – I will try to give my all on the field.”