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Strong second half leads Ukraine past Slovakia

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DUESSELDORF, Germany (AP) — It's all about resilience for Ukraine at the European Championship, whether on the field or trying to inspire those at home in wartime.

After being blown out by Romania 3-0 in its first match, Ukraine conceded the opening goal to Slovakia on Friday but fought back for a much-needed 2-1 win, prompting emotional scenes with their fans afterward.

“Our mental strength was shown to the best of our ability on the pitch,” midfielder Mykola Shaparenko said through a translator after scoring one goal and setting up another.

Ukraine's first comeback win in the Euros in 12 years was also their third comeback win in four competitive games this year. More importantly, the Ukrainians remained in contention for the last 16 after substitute Roman Yaremchuk's goal sealed the win.

Showing that Ukraine can fight, overcome obstacles and win “is exactly what Ukraine’s National Football Team is doing today,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy posted on social media after the game.

After two 2-1 comeback wins in the playoffs in March to reach Euro 2024, Ukraine result against Slovakia by the same score has revived the team's campaign. The next aim is reaching the knockout stages in the first major tournament for Ukraine since Russia's invasion in 2022. That is likely to require at least a draw against Belgium on Wednesday.

Ukraine’s poor goal difference following a 3-0 loss to Romania on Monday meant another defeat would have put it on the brink of elimination.

“Today, it was a different spirit,” coach Serhiy Rebrov said. “It was a very important win for our country, for Ukraine, for our fathers, for our supporters, and I’m sure today they were proud of the players.”

Slovakia is level with Ukraine and Romania on three points in Group E. Romania and Belgium meet on Saturday.

Rebrov made four changes to the team after the Romania loss but the same fragility in defense remained — at least to begin with.

Goalkeeper Anatoliy Trubin, in for Andriy Lunin after errors against Romania, made a series of saves early on but could do nothing to stop the opening goal.

Ivan Schranz, who also scored the only goal in the surprise 1-0 win over Belgium four days ago, was left free at the far post when his marker Oleksandr Zinchenko jumped to intercept a cross which flew over his head.

Zinchenko was at fault for the first goal but pivotal to the second, overlapping on the left flank to receive the ball and cross low for Shaparenko, who found space to score his first international goal in nearly three years.

Bringing Yaremchuk off the bench to replace the mostly ineffective Artem Dovbyk changed the game again as he surged past the Slovakian defense to score the winner.

Slovakia is fighting to prevent a repeat of the 2021 Euros, where it won its first game but lost the next two and was eliminated in the group stage on goal difference. It may have to play its next game against Romania on Wednesday without defender David Hancko, who injured his hamstring, coach Francesco Calzona said.