Why Shakhtar Donetsk really will beat Fulham

When NMTB filed its missive entitled “Why Shakhtar will beat Fulham” last week, the tenet of the blog was pertaining to the Ukrainians' Europa League tie against Fulham as a whole, not just the first leg. Honest.

NMTB, Thu Feb 18: Why Shakhtar will beat Fulham

It wasn’t necessarily lending credence to the views of the 56 percent of Shakhtar supporters whom expected their beloved Hirnyky to win both fixtures.

Roy Hodgson has fashioned a well-organised outfit at Craven Cottage and shored up a once-porous defence, so a 2-1 defeat is neither a disaster nor disgrace.

However, the visitors had a great deal of possession in the opening 45 minutes and Mircea Lucescu would have been dismayed that they didn’t build on that in the second half.

(That’s a slightly convoluted manner of saying “game of two halves”, really).


It was Shakhtar’s third European tie in London, and the third occasion they’ve failed to return to Ukraine with a win. The Pomaranchevo-Chorni’s previous two visits to England yielded a 1-1 draw with Tottenham Hotspur last season and a 3-2 defeat at Arsenal a decade ago.

Who can forget that late five-minute double-salvo from free-scoring defender turned Football Focus couch-dweller Martin Keown? They must have constituted a decent proportion of his career goals tally.

But, like now, some things never change.

In 2000 there were murmurs over Arsene Wenger’s future at Arsenal and Shakhtar were something of a pestilent beast on home turf. They dispatched their London visitors in eastern Ukraine 2-0 and 3-0 respectively, and it will take an Herculean effort by Fulham to reach the next round.

Bergkamp v Shakhtar. In London, obviously

It’s now 10 games unbeaten at home in Europe for Shakhtar and domestically they have still to taste defeat at their new Donbass Arena. Indeed, their solitary loss in the league this season has been a 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Dynamo Kyiv in the Ukrainian capital.

Fulham only arrived in Donetsk yesterday, so haven’t exactly afforded themselves a great deal of time for sightseeing or getting refused entry to the pompous and glitzy Donetsk City shopping centre on Pushkina, although maybe they’ve been swotting up on their opponents’ hometown and realised that there really is very little to do there.

Probably a bit nippy for Roy to take them on a boat ride on the Kalmius at this time of year.

It was nine years ago as an unworldly 18-year-old that NMTB last visited Donetsk and back then, living in Kyiv as a single blog alone and abroad for the first time, it was “interesting” to learn that there were “heaps of slags in Donetsk.”

“Wow, it’s gonna be just like Hull with all these ‘terykony’ the Kyivites are referring to”, was its initial reaction.

NMTB set off for Donetsk on the overnight train blithely unaware that it wasn’t quite the sinkhole of iniquity it had envisaged. It’s slag-heaps that the city is renowned for, and it wasn’t anywhere near as gratifying a holiday as the blog had hoped for; it had to settle for some football instead.

To confirm, NMTB did not head to eastern Ukraine in search of women of questionable disposition. There were plenty of those in Kyiv...

Donetsk is an archetypal grim, industrial Eastern European town of steel mills and coalmines, and in the grand scheme of things, a relatively new settlement. The city was founded just a couple of hundred years ago by John Hughes, a Welshman, and originally named Hughesovka. Honestly.

It’s also twinned with the more famous “steel cities” of Sheffield and Pittsburgh.

Donetsk briefly changed to Stalino, although Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinisation put an end to all the self-gratification of Uncle Joe’s tenure, and it was bestowed its current moniker in honour of the Siverskyi Donets River.

Its streets didn’t meet the same fate, mind. As in many other FSU cities, their names read like a who’s who of Russia, and they're not all heroes. Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka (the precursor to the KGB), still has one of the main boulevards in Donetsk bearing his name. NMTB’s personal favourite was the “50 Years of USSR” street.

It’s a city of approximately a million inhabitants with a distinctly un-Ukrainian flavour, what with its proximity to the border with Russia, and that's reflected in the demographics of Donetsk, which has an almost 50-50 Ukrainian/Russian mix.

Shakhtar’s owner – the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, who probably sits surrounded by piles of hryvnia reminiscent of the terykony that blight Donetsk’s landscape – was born and “earned” his wealth in the city that can also count upon Sergei Rebrov as a “local boy done good”.


Back when NMTB visited Donetsk, the Donbass Arena was just a twinkling in Akhmetov’s eye: the £255m stadium, which will be one of the four Ukrainian venues for Euro 2012, was only inaugurated last year (by Beyoncé, no less).

It’s a grandiose, world-class edifice, indubitably the best stadium in the FSU at present – although with the money being pumped into the region’s footballing infrastructure, the 50,000-seater is going to receive some strong competition in the coming years.

Shakhtar drafted in the Sports Turf Research Institute, who are also responsible for the pitch at Wembley Stadium, to help prepare for Fulham’s visit and ensure the surface is in top condition: it has experienced sub-zero temperatures and heavy snow of late.

A stadium like the Donbass Arena is perhaps befitting a modern, forward-thinking club of Shakhtar’s nature.

Off the pitch they now possess all the facets of a top European side; state-of-the-art youth academy, ultramodern mega-store, informative trilingual website. They even proffer guided tours of their new home, often conducted by a former player.

Interestingly, Shakhtar are also offering fans attending the game cut-price taxi rides tonight. Officially their deal with Status Taxis is to alleviate problems in exiting the Donbass Arena; however, the 10% discount possibly has an alternative altruistic reason behind it that Akhmetov perhaps won’t readily admit to.

Ukrainian taxis are inexpensive, but some unscrupulous drivers operate a dual pricing system rendering fares even Akhmetov would baulk at; NMTB landed itself in hot water in Bakhchisaray a few years ago and the outcome wasn’t pleasant (at least not for the blog), so by appointing one firm “official taxicab” of the tie, it’s perhaps a way of minimising this threat to away supporters.

Either way, it’s a fantastic gesture.

On the pitch, Fulham will almost certainly require at least one goal; they can't afford to sit on such a slender lead, not against a side boasting a wealth of attacking options like Shakhtar.

The Ukrainians might not have had a game since the Fulham defeat, but if they can impose their style of play on the tie like they did in the first half last week, then Shakhtar have a very good chance of progressing.

The pitch at the Donbass Arena is wider than Craven Cottage and they're a team who like to utilise the width, so it could be a tough ask for Hodgson’s side to come away with a positive result.

It will be a close affair, but NMTB is sticking with its initial prediction: Shakhtar to progress.

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