By Michael Yokhin
Back in September 2010, Shakhtar Donetsk were handed the biggest of blows when Fernandinho - Mircea Lucescu’s midfield lynch-pin - broke a leg on the eve of their Champions League campaign.
It was an unexpected setback and sections of the media were quick to tip the Ukrainian outfit to struggle without one of their leading lights.
They were proved wrong. Not only did Shakhtar qualify for the knockout stages of the competition, but they did so in style, finishing top of their group ahead of Arsenal, winning five out of their six games in the process.
Their remarkable run continued with the dismantling of Roma in the last 16, as they recorded a 3-2 win at the Stadio Olimpico and followed it up with a resounding 3-0 home triumph.
Ultimately it was Barcelona who put a halt to the Ukrainian champions’ charge in the quarter-finals, on their way to lifting the trophy that same year. Ironically, the defeat was inflicted as Fernandinho returned to fitness with two substitute appearances against the Catalans.
Fast forward to February 2013 and those same doubts of two years ago have returned once again, following Shakhtar’s sale of Brazil superstar Willian, who left for Anzhi Makhachkala after the big-spending Russian club met his €35 million release clause.
Shakhtar's group stage results
||W 1-0 V Nordsjaelland (H)
||D 1-1 V Juventus (A)
||W 2-1 V Chelsea (H)|
||L 3-2 V Chelsea (A)
||W 5-2 V Nordsjaelland (A)
||L 1-0 V Juventus (H)
Lucescu did his utmost to persuade the midfielder to stay in Donetsk, but while Chelsea and Tottenham were reluctant to pay such a colossal fee, Anzhi owner Suleiman Kerimov had no such problem in producing the necessary funds, and Shakhtar were helpless to prevent his exit.
There can be little doubt over Willian’s growing importance to Hirnyky in the five years since he made the bold move to leave Corinthians and pursue his career in the unfamiliar surroundings of Eastern Europe.
In the autumn of the current campaign, his rise to prominence was complete. After producing outstanding displays in the 1-1 draw at Juventus and 2-1 home win against the Blues, he then scored twice at Stamford Bridge in a narrow 3-2 defeat to the reigning European champions.
But for all of that, as the case of Fernandinho shows, his departure may not leave the gaping chasm in the side as first feared.
Shakhtar are first and foremost a team, based on the power of the collective rather than the individual brilliance of a handful of players. Their style is consistent and remains the same regardless of those selected or the identity of the opposition.
Lucescu’s outfit are a courageous unit and Chelsea and Juventus will testify to their fearless nature in attacking even the strongest of opponents.
Borussia Dortmund, Shakhtar's last 16 Champions League opponents on Wednesday night, would be wise to have made note of their opponents' remarkable strength in depth.
Douglas Costa, a talented 22-year-old Brazilian who perhaps lacks Willian’s speed but is blessed with the very same vision, has played regularly domestically, but has remained in the shadows in European competition.
Two years ago he scored and set up Luiz Adriano in that famous win at Roma and he is more than capable of making a telling contribution against the reigning Bundesliga champions.
Shakhtar’s depth does not stop there. In Alex Teixeira, Lucescu has another talented Brazilian in his ranks waiting to make an impression, while Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the brilliant Armenian with 18 goals in 17 league games, has been the club’s star man even when Willian was in the team.
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But simmering below the surface is a new recruit and a man many are backing to become Willian’s successor and the latest superstar on Shakhtar’s conveyor belt of South American talent.
Despite reports suggesting he was close to sealing a switch to Chelsea in January, Metalist Kharkiv midfielder Taison instead opted to join Donetsk for a reported €14m – a mere fraction of the money recouped from the sale of Willian.
At 25-years-old and eight months older than his predecessor, the former Internacional player has also made an impact already in European competition this season.
Comfortable on either flank, Taison’s spectacular volley for Metalist in their Europa League clash against Rosenborg has been compared to Marco van Basten’s famous Euro 88’ strike against the USSR, and in turn become a YouTube sensation.
It remains a tall order for him to match or even surpass the individual efforts of Willian, but much can be learnt from the past, and just as they did in the absence of Fernandinho back in 2010, another display of united strength from Shakhtar Donetsk could stun Borussia Dortmund and the rest of Europe.