Kiev (AFP) – Ukraine’s great hope Yevhen Konoplyanka chose La Liga, dismissing England’s more physical Premier League, and has since become a bench-warmer at Sevilla.
However, his country’s fans still hope that he can fire them to success at Euro 2016.
The 26-year-old winger attracted interest from big clubs across the continent with dashing displays with Dnipro on their run to the final of the Europa League in 2015.
Konoplyanka looked like one of the few players from Ukraine capable of making a mark on the European game like Andriy Shevchenko and Sergiy Rebrov.
He chose a move to Spain.
“If I was two and a half metres tall and didn’t know how to control a ball then I may have gone to England,” Konoplyanka was quoted as saying.
“But here (in Spain), the football’s more technical. It’s the best,” said the super-sub who reportedly has a 40 million-euro ($45m) buyout clause in his contract.
Despite that confidence, and a goal as a substitute on his debut against Barcelona in the UEFA Super Cup, Konoplyanka has struggled for a first-team place.
His flashes of form have persuaded Sevilla coach Unai Emery to keep faith with the Ukrainian, although Konoplyanka was an unused substitute in last month’s Europa League final win over Liverpool and only came off the bench late on as they lost the Copa del Rey final to Barcelona.
“I am confident that if Konoplyanka has not been successful yet, he will be in the future,” Emery told Spanish media.
“The team will need him and we will support him, as we do with the rest of the players.”
– Teen wonder –
Before his travails in Spain, Konoplyanka made an impressive rise in his home country.
Born in the central town of Kirovograd as the Soviet Union was crumbling in 1989, he was spotted by Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk scouts playing for a local team and signed at the age of 16.
“I knew that Dnipro were interested,” Konoplyanka told AFP last year. “They sent their scouts to watch me.”
“I tried hard to show my worth in that match, even scored a goal. After the game we signed a deal.”
A year later, in 2007, Konoplyanka made his debut in the Ukrainian top flight. His career only really took off, however, after Spaniard Juande Ramos became coach in 2010.
A natural right-footer who plays mostly on the left wing, Konoplyanka scooped the first of three crowns as Ukraine’s Player of the Year.
His eye-catching performances attracted Ukraine manager Myron Markevych and led to a call-up for the first of 53 caps. He has scored 13 goals.
At Euro 2012, which Ukraine co-hosted with Poland, Konoplyanka started all three group games, setting up Shevchenko’s winner in the opening match against Sweden before the team crashed out.
He scored three goals in qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup finals, including a long-range screamer in a 1–1 draw with England at Wembley. But Ukraine failed again to reach the finals.
In 2014, Ramos left Dnipro as fighting raged between pro-Russian separatists and government troops in eastern Ukraine.
In his place came former national coach Markevych and — despite the turmoil — he led Dnipro to the Europa League final against Sevilla.
Despite a rousing effort by Konoplyanka and his teammates, Dnipro lost 3-2 to the Spanish club in Warsaw.
With a place in the Europa League’s all-star team, Konoplyanka had done enough to seal a move abroad.
One difficult season on and conflict-wracked Ukraine is pinning its hopes on Konoplyanka for Euro 2016 in France.
“He’s one of the leaders of our team and when he warms the bench at Sevilla it’s definitely not good for Ukraine,” coach Mykhaylo Fomenko told AFP.
“But he still has time to get enough match practice,” he said. “Since Konoplyanka went to Spain he has got everything he needs to become one of Europe’s best wingers.”
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