By Paul Jones
Wales defender Ben Davies has praised Ukraine star Oleksandr Zinchenko as “a stand-out man” for the way he has conducted himself in the media ahead of Sunday’s emotionally-charged World Cup play-off final.
The eyes of the world will be on Cardiff City Stadium to see if Ukraine’s national football team can pull off a win that would lift a country that has been at war since Russia’s invasion in February.
A tearful Zinchenko spoke from the heart ahead of Ukraine’s 3-1 play-off semi-final victory over Scotland on Wednesday, detailing what it would mean for his country if they qualify for the World Cup in Qatar later this year.
Davies acknowledged the difficulty of the situation for Ukraine’s players and paid tribute to the way they have approached these fixtures.
“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 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.
“Football can kind of seem a bit insignificant in these times and moments, and it is very difficult to try and rationalise that a game is so important when you’ve got such major events going on in the world.
“You have to just credit their players for the way they have handled it so far.
🏴 Ben Davies and Joe Rodon are in #NationsLeague action this evening, with a number of international fixtures coming up! 🙌
🌍 Find out who’s in action and when ⤵️
— Tottenham Hotspur (@SpursOfficial) June 1, 2022
“The way that Zinchenko has handled it all in the media is a real credit to him, and he has shown what a stand-out man he is.”
Victory for Wales this weekend would see them secure only their second appearance at a World Cup, and first for 64 years.
Davies added: “It is something that we’ve been desperate to do for 50-60 years.
“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.”
Wales reached the semi-finals of Euro 2016 and were knocked out in the round of 16 by Denmark when Euro 2020 took place last year, having been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
A World Cup place would represent an altogether different achievement, though, especially as Wales have experienced some agonising near-misses ahead of previous tournaments.
“We haven’t really thought about those near-misses,” Davies said. “We’ve only focused on what is in our control with the squad that we’ve got now.
“These boys are very fearless. It may be their first experience of crunch games since the Euros last year, but I think they handled it really well.
“I think the better we do, people always expect us to maintain that level, but the reality is we have a small group of players to pick from, comparatively, to teams we come up against.
“I really do believe we are punching above our weight. It is a really good squad.”
Oleksandr Zinchenko broke into tears ahead of Ukraine’s World Cup play-off game 🇺🇦 pic.twitter.com/7HobBljcVI
— GOAL (@goal) May 31, 2022
But Sunday’s showdown sees Wales one win from making only their second appearance at a World Cup, John Charles and company having reached the quarter-finals in Sweden in 1958.
“Every player in the dressing room knows what it means to the country,” said Williams, one of only eight players to have featured in Wales’ 2016 and 2020 European Championship squads.
“It’s a huge game, we’re at home and it’s a massive opportunity to go and do something that hasn’t been achieved in many years.
“To go to two Euros was a dream, but a World Cup is the pinnacle.
“We’ve given ourselves the chance of doing that with a very strong side in front of a home crowd.”
Wales midfielder Jonny Williams was on target as Wales were beaten 2-1 by Poland in their Nations League opener on Wednesday.
The Swindon midfielder opened the scoring for a second-string Wales side in Wroclaw.
Boss Robert Page had rested the likes of skipper Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Ben Davies and Joe Allen ahead of Sunday, and Wales were punished in the closing stages by World Cup-bound Poland.
Substitutes Jakub Kaminski and Karol Swiderski struck as Wales’ nine-game unbeaten run stretching back to last summer came to an end.
“Our biggest strength as a team and as a nation is our togetherness,” said midfielder Joe Morrell.
“Whatever team goes out there on Sunday is going to be 110 per cent ready.
— Joe Morrell (@JoeJMorrell) June 2, 2022
“I didn’t grow up dreaming of going to a World Cup, and I would imagine any Welsh lad is the same.
“But hopefully it will create a knock-on effect and there are 10-year-olds out there now thinking ‘we can go the World Cup’.
“I’ve heard the stories of ’58 and the last time we got there – it’s a hell of a long time ago.
“You hear stories of the great players of the past. It’s a chance to put ourselves in the same category.
“We’ve shown we can mix it with anyone in the world, and hopefully we’ll get the chance to do that on stage of the biggest tournament.”