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By Peter Hall
(Reuters) - Ukraine's conflict with Russia has not hindered their national team's qualification for Euro 2020 as Andriy Shevchenko's side target the knockout rounds for the first time.
Kyiv and Moscow have traded blame for escalating clashes in eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces have fought pro-Russian separatists since 2014 in a conflict that Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people.
The conflict between the two neighbours has had its impact on football in Ukraine too. The Ukrainian Premier League has experienced a serious decline since the outbreak of hostilities.
Several leading teams have ceased to operate, while perennial champions Shakhtar Donetsk have been forced into internal exile alongside other clubs with home bases in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine.
Politics has also crept into football decision-making. One of Ukraine's best defenders in recent years, Yaroslav Rakitskiy, who won 54 caps, has been omitted from the squad since joining Russian side Zenit St Petersburg in 2019.
Despite this difficult background, the national team have been revitalised under Ukraine great Shevchenko.
There were calls for the nation's most famous ever player to be sacked as coach after Ukraine failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but instead Shevchenko has turned his team into a surprise European force.
Handed a tough draw in qualifying Group B for Euro 2020 alongside Portugal and Serbia, not much was expected from the under-pressure Shevchenko and his young side.
But Ukraine finished top of the group, unbeaten, having conceded four goals in their entire campaign.
A much-fancied Serbia were dispatched in ruthless fashion in their third qualifier, with the 5-0 victory proving Shevchenko's young team can really produce when it matters.
A 7-1 defeat by France in a friendly last October threatened to derail their progress but Ukraine provided a perfect response by beating Spain in the Nations League a week later in Kyiv.
"It's a victory for the determination of my players, they were simply great," Shevchenko said. "The guys have learned their lesson after the France game, they accepted the changes we suggested and fulfilled our plan.
"It was hard to compete with Spain but we fought all the time. We wanted to win so badly, and we did it."
Into his fifth year as coach, Shevchenko, 44, has worked with numerous members of his squad for several years and built a team around mostly domestic-based players who are familiar with each other and what is going on at home.
The close-knit unit have been handed a favourable Euro 2020 group alongside the Netherlands, North Macedonia and Austria, and will be aiming to reach the knockout rounds in the competition for the first time as an independent nation.
They cannot fare much worse than last time when Ukraine crashed out with no points and no goals at Euro 2016.
Written off on plentiful occasions, Shevchenko's men are capable of springing more than a few surprises this year.
(Reporting by Peter Hall; Editing by Ken Ferris)