Why was Shakhtar scoring sensation Facundo Ferreyra such a flop at Newcastle?

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The Argentine suffered throughout a torrid year-long loan at St. James' Park after fleeing war-torn Ukraine, but he is now back to his best

Fully recovered from a string of crises on and off the field, Facundo Ferreyra has finally started to realise his clear potential. The Argentine striker is finding the net with impressive regularity for Shakhtar Donetsk, driving the embattled Ukrainians in their fairytale Champions League run.

The days he was ready to flee from the conflict-torn country now seem consigned to the past – and even further back is 'Chucky's' instantly forgettable spell at Newcastle, where nothing seemed to go right for the former Argentina Under-20 star.

Ferreyra has smashed a fantastic 27 goals in 33 games for Shakhtar, helping his club open up a healthy six-point lead in the Premier League over eternal rivals Dynamo Kyiv. Three of those have come in the Champions League, the latest of which a brilliant individual effort past Alisson that put Shakhtar on the road to a 2-1 comeback victory over Roma in the first leg of their last-16 fixture.

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The tie, which concludes on Tuesday at the Stadio Olimpico, remains poised on a knife-edge, and the visitors will look to Ferreyra and his South American partners in crime, Brazilian duo Bernard and Fred, to pull a huge upset in the Italian capital.

Ferreyra's continued presence in the Shakhtar line-up is in itself a minor miracle.

The striker chose fellow Argentines Velez Sarsfield over a host of suitors – Juventus, River Plate and Sevilla to name just a handful – in 2012 when boyhood club Banfield suffered relegation and, 12 months later, was snapped up by the Ukrainians in a five-year deal worth $9 million. He made an instant impact but, in 2014, a succession of events outside his control led him to flee Ukraine apparently fearing for his life.

That year, President Viktor Yanukovych was forced out of office after bloody demonstrations and street battles, the head of state's alleged pro-Russian leanings one of the aspects of rule most resisted by protesters. In response, Russia moved into the Crimea region, effectively annexing Ukrainian territory under the pretext of safeguarding Russian populations in the area.

Located in the far east, Donetsk has been a focal point for armed clashes between government forces and pro-Russian separatists since 2014 and is now under the control of the self-proclaimed 'Donetsk People's Republic', while Shakhtar play in exile in Kharkiv. Faced with the prospect of playing under the shadow of civil war, Ferreyra and five team-mates escaped training and refused to return to Ukraine during a tour of France.

“I was never scared, but I went through some strange situations,” Chucky recalled to La Nacion in 2016, having returned to Ukraine. “One day [in Donetsk], the Ukrainian flag would be flying over the building, the next, the Russian flag.

"When I went to training, the Donetsk police would ask me for my documents. On the other side of the building, a group of hooded men would also ask me for identification. They were pro-Russians. They were tough times.”

Facundo Ferreyra Donetsk PS

Shakhtar's reaction was fierce. “If they do not come back they will suffer the consequences,” club owner Rinat Akhmetov fired at the time. Coach Mircea Lucescu, meanwhile, pointed the finger at super-agent Kia Joorabchian, accusing him of taking advantage of the instability in Ukraine to “kidnap” his players. A compromise, however, was eventually struck, with Ferreyra sent to Newcastle on a year's loan.

However, St. James' Park proved another false start for the Argentine. Manager Alan Pardew completely overlooked his new signing, who did not play in a single Premier League game during his time with the Magpies.

Ferreyra blamed his snubbing on his lack of the physical prowess necessary to star in England. “When I got here (Newcastle), I struggled to adapt. It cost me physically perhaps, the inactivity in Ukraine. There were many tense moments,” he explained to the Newcastle Chronicle in March 2015.

“There is a lot of running, which becomes attractive, and there are a lot of goals. The defenders are very strong and have to withstand whatever is thrown at them. Here, if you are not good physically, you can not play.”

Facundo Ferreyra Newcastle PS

The word inside Newcastle, meanwhile, was that Ferreyra was so underwhelming even in training that they could not fathom why the young Argentine had been brought to Tyneside. Unsurprisingly, Newcastle declined to take up the player's £6m purchase option.

Back in Ukraine and determined to make the best of a bad job, Chucky initially struggled but hit back with a breakout 2016-17 season that yielded 16 goals in 27 games, a league-cup double and a new lease on life in his troubled adopted home, even adapting to the rigours of being based in Kyiv during the week and travelling to Kharkiv for 'home' games.

“It is like being in a different country,” he admits. “Everybody began a new life. In our stadium there were always 50,000 fans supporting us, they exert a lot of pressure. Now it is tough for them to travel, it is a day's drive.

“It is tough to play in these conditions, it is an advantage for our opponents. But we draw strength from our adversity. We are respected in Europe, we have a sort of mystique. Some big players, like Douglas Costa, have left us, but we keep on fighting.”

Now that fight enters Rome, site of the famous Colosseum - and Ferreyra is one gladiator the hosts should fear as they take on plucky Shakhtar for a place in the Champions League quarters.

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