By Andrew Wychrij
Less than a year since Shakhtar Donetsk shocked Europe by helping to eliminate holders Chelsea from the Champions League, the Ukrainian outfit are out to upset Manchester United on Wednesday. But the huge turnover of top talent which has occured since their giant-killing feats of 2012 leaves them as sceptical as anyone of their chances of another show-stopping victory.
Last season may have been something of a European watershed for the club. While most were at least casually aware of the South American talent assembled in a far corner of eastern Ukraine, few expected them to progress from a group containing two much more celebrated names in Juventus and Chelsea.
Politely acknowledged as a 'tricky tie', Mircea Lucescu’s men were not considered likely to dent the aspirations of a duo that share three European Cups, let alone eject the champions themselves. And yet, that was exactly what they did.
|INS AND OUTS | Shakhtar's big business in 2013
|Bernard||Atletico Mineiro||€25m||Fernandinho||Man City||€40m|
|Fernando||Gremio||€11m||Razvan Rat||West Ham||Free|
|Facundo Ferreyra||Velez Sarsfield||€7m|
A superior head-to-head record saw the Pitmen edge Chelsea into third (making the Blues the first defending champions to exit in the group stage) and assert themselves against the established hegemony of European club football.
The impressive Brazilian quartet of Alex Teixeira, Luiz Adriano, Willian and Fernandinho were irresistible at times, playing an attractive brand of incisive, free-flowing football that both Chelsea and Juventus struggled to contain. A 2-1 win over the Blues at the Donbass Arena was the highlight of the Miners’ endeavours and they should have earned more than four points against those two famous opponents.
After last season’s showing, confidence is high and a stuttering Manchester United are the next target in Shakhtar’s sights as the teams prepare to meet in Donetsk on Wednesday.
"Are Manchester United aliens or something?" defender Yaroslav Rakitskiy asked Shakhtar’s official site when questioned as to whether his side could actually beat the Red Devils.
"Yes, they’re one of the strongest teams in Europe, but they’re not invincible. We can beat anyone and our goal is to progress from the group and go as far as possible."
Shakhtar’s reputation has not emerged overnight. The men from Donbass have built their European pedigree over the last decade; the 2009 Uefa Cup winners have reached the Champions League group stages in six of the last seven seasons, and as such they demand to be taken seriously.
However, as tempting as it would be to predict a continuation of the upward trajectory that Shakhtar have shown in European competition of late, it would be rash to be too enthusiastic. This Miners side is certainly a very different prospect to the one that made Europe sit up and take notice a year ago.
Though the Pitmen made an impressive start to their Champions League campaign with a 2-0 win away to Real Sociedad, domestically the picture is far less rosy. A 2-2 draw with Metalurh in the Donetsk derby on Saturday has left the defending champions trailing in third, six points behind leaders Metalist Kharkhiv after 11 games.
Shakhtar have been uncharacteristically sloppy all too often this season. Held at home by Metalist before succumbing to two away defeats in four games, their displays have been beset by an inability to exert meaningful control over proceedings, a wastefulness in front of goal and an unhealthy smattering of defensive errors. In short, not the sort of performances Shakhtar fans have become accustomed to, and in some ways curiously similar to some of United’s current woes.
Saturday’s Donetsk derby offers a case in point for many of Shakhtar’s current problems. Despite dominating significant portions of the first half, the visitors fell behind after Fernando carelessly gave the ball away in his own box and Rakitskiy poked the ball into the net. Metalurh doubled their lead when Shakhtar’s defence was again ruthlessly exposed by a through ball on the counter, which ended with Junior Moraes delivering a sublime chip over Andriy Pyatov.
Though they battled back to 2-2 through goals from Alex Teixeira and Eduardo, the Pitmen had Pyatov to thank for producing a stunning save in the 94th minute to preserve a point. It would have been an ignoble loss but, for all Shakhtar’s possession and chances, not an undeserved one.
Metalurh will not represent the Pitmen’s biggest challenge this season but they highlighted Shakhtar’s weaknesses, and proved that Lucescu has struggled to replace his high-profile departures.
"It is clear that the newcomers are talented players," the 68-year-old Romanian told journalists after the derby. "But when two or three of them go out in the starting line-up, our game goes a bit wrong. We're waiting. Naturally, we need patience. They aren’t of much help so far."
That frank assessment underlines the fact that Shakhtar are sorely missing a couple of big names.
Fernandinho, now at Manchester City, added a box-to-box dynamism to the Pitmen’s midfield, coupling an attacking threat with reliability as a defensive shield that made him indispensible during his eight years in Donbass. Meanwhile, Henrikh Mkhitarayan’s move to Borussia Dortmund has robbed his former side of an even more valuable commodity: goals. The Armenian scored 25 in 29 league games last year, a void that does not currently look likely to be filled by Luiz Adriano, Eduardo or new signing Facundo Ferreyra.
Shakhtar are in transition and the latest clutch of South Americans, all of them extremely inexperienced, will take time to acclimatise to life in Ukraine’s ‘Brazilian Colony.’
Fernando, Bernard, Ferreyra, Fred and Wellington Nem, with an average age of just 21, have been used sparingly so far but there have been flashes of quality hinting as to their potential. Bernard especially has looked extremely lively, showing a pace and trickery that has left defences helpless, suggesting he may soon justify his €25 million transfer fee.
Shakhtar may have lost some of their stars recently but they still possess enough quality to trouble Europe’s elite. Indeed, the majority of the squad is not radically different from a year ago, though the onus has certainly shifted.
The Miners are likely to cause United problems but should the Ukrainians be victorious, given their current form, it will likely have as much to do with United’s own frailties as Shakhtar’s talent. This side is by no means the finished article. However, should Lucescu keep his young squad intact, it won’t be long before they shake Europe once again.
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