Ukraine stun Scotland to keep World Cup dream alive and set up playoff final with Wales

Ukraine's World Cup dream remains very much alive after they beat Scotland 3-1 in their playoff semifinal at Hampden Park on Wednesday to set up a winner-take-all clash with Wales for a spot in Qatar.

Playing their first official game since Russia's invasion of the country in February, Ukraine put in a superb performance to outplay a Scotland team that must continue to wait for their first World Cup appearance since 1998.

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Captain Andriy Yarmolenko opened the scoring for the visitors with a fine lofted finish in the 33rd minute after beating the Scottish offside trap. Striker Roman Yaremchuk then gave Ukraine some breathing room with a header past Craig Gordon just four minutes into the second half.

That cushion proved necessary, as Scotland threatened to make a comeback late on and pulled within one goal when Ukraine goalkeeper Georgiy Bushchan let a Callum McGregor shot slip through his fingers and creep over the line with 11 minutes remaining.

But a Ukraine team that married passion and technical quality throughout were more than deserving of their victory and made sure of it in the final seconds when Artem Dovbyk found the net following a breakaway.

The majority of Ukraine's squad plays in the country's domestic league, which has been on hiatus since the Russian-instigated war began 99 days ago. But, after having just three exhibition games against European club teams to prepare, they are now just 90 minutes away from the World Cup.

The winner between Wales and Ukraine in Cardiff on Sunday (streaming LIVE, ESPN+, noon ET) will slot into Group B in Qatar, alongside England, the United States and Iran.

Wednesday's victory was also celebrated by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

"Thank you guys! Two hours of happiness, something we have become unaccustomed to," Zelenskyy said in an online post.

"Joy to our soldiers, joy to the entire country. We are all fighting, everyone on their own front. We will fight on, we will withstand everything, we will win. For we are Ukrainians."

An emotionally drained Ukraine coach Oleksandr Petrakov said his team had been playing for all those struggling back home.

"We played for them, for those who fight with their last drop of blood, for those who suffer every day," he said.

"We took baby steps towards our great aim, we have the Wales game to come and we will do everything people expect us to do," he said.

Ukraine's travelling support, who had come from across the United Kingdom and from as far away as Australia and the United States to cheer on their team, were jubilant, with many no doubt now planning to extend their trip to a weekend in South Wales.

Whether they will be planning trips to Doha after Sunday's game remains to be seen, but they will certainly have plenty of belief after an impressive display.

Ukraine's home-based players had not played competitive football since December, but they were quick out of the blocks and caused Scotland problems from the outset.

Home keeper Gordon had to make three saves in the opening 25 minutes to keep the game scoreless with Ukraine's smooth passing and movement too much for a hesitant Scottish defence.

Ukraine players celebrate after scoring a goal against Scotland in their UEFA World Cup qualifying playoff.
Ukraine players celebrate after scoring a goal against Scotland in their UEFA World Cup qualifying playoff.
Getty Images

The goal finally came in the 33rd when Yarmolenko sprung the offside trap and latched on to a ball over the top from Ruslan Malinovskyi and lobbed the advancing Gordon.

Ukraine were full value for their half-time lead and extended their advantage four minutes after the break when Yaremchuk beat two Scottish defenders to reach a cross from Oleksandr Karavaev and head into the far corner.

With the home crowd turning against their team and sloppy passing undermining attempts to gain any sort of momentum, Scotland looked beaten, but they found a way back into the game.

Ukraine keeper Georgiy Bushchan punched the ball out in a crowed box and McGregor struck it goalward, and although Taras Stepanenko looked to have cleared, the ball was ruled to have crossed the line and a goal awarded.

Hampden was awakened, and with Ukraine tiring, Scotland pushed forward in numbers in search of a way to take the game into extra time.

But after wasting a couple of chances on the break, with the final kick of the match, Dovbyk put the game to bed and set off emotional celebrations.

It was a deserved win for Ukraine and one that came more from their quality football than their expected spirit.

For Scotland it was a bitter end to their hopes of a first World Cup appearance in 24 years.

"It's a disappointing night. You have to be honest, the best team on the night won," said coach Steve Clarke.

"Now is a night to suffer, we'll suffer together. It's going to take at least 48 hours just to move on. When you lose a game of this magnitude it hurts," he added.

Information from Reuters was used in this report.