You get the feeling the winter break probably couldn’t have come at a worse time for Mircea Lucescu. Shakhtar Donetsk’s wily old manager is, after all, steering the Ukrainian champions through something of a transitional phase right now, and there was a growing sense that things were just starting to come together.
The Pitmen’s previous game – a 1-0 victory last Tuesday away at a Chornomorets Odesa side riding high domestically and within touching distance of the Europa League knockout stages – was their final domestic fixture of 2013. It isn't until March that the Ukrainian championship picks up again.
By then, though, Lucescu will be hoping that Shakhtar have ushered in the new year with a Champions League knockout tie in February. Their task at Old Trafford this evening is simple: they shall advance as winners of Group A at Manchester United’s expense with victory; a draw would suffice if Bayer Leverkusen fail to beat Real Sociedad. If United win, Shakhtar must hope that Leverkusen also lose in San Sebastián.
David Moyes’ side have, of course, already qualified for the knockout stages, but after losing to both Everton and Newcastle United at home within the space of a few days, not to mention occupying ninth place in the Premier League, three points would certainly come as welcome relief. There is also the carrot of a potentially more manageable opponent in the next round. Not since 1962 have United lost three consecutive home matches and never in their history has the club suffered three defeats at Old Trafford in one week.
Still, the Scot can find some comfort in the fact that Shakhtar hardly possess an enviable record in England. This is their sixth visit and Shakhtar are yet to win, having lost against Arsenal (twice), Fulham and Chelsea. A 1-1 draw with Tottenham Hotspur on their way to winning the 2009 UEFA Cup is the only occasion where Shakhtar have avoided defeat. Last season a late Victor Moses header gave Chelsea, then the reigning Champions League holders, a 3-2 victory, but ultimately Shakhtar finished second – and above Roberto Di Matteo’s side – in Group E. Lucescu brings with him a very different team to that which lost at Stamford Bridge last November, however.
This year Willian signed for Chelsea (via Anzhi Makhachkala), Fernandinho went to Manchester City and Henrikh Mkhitaryan joined Borussia Dortmund, which is a corollary of playing in Ukraine by and large. Shakhtar themselves are hardly poor, but the Ukrainian championship pales in comparison to Europe’s top leagues and in some respects it is still perceived as something of a stepping stone. Shakhtar have also lost the experienced Mark Devic, who joined Metalist Kharkiv, while Razvan Rat signed for West Ham United this summer.
Their departures led to a busy summer for Lucescu, who is in his ninth full season at Shakhtar. Arriving at some considerable cost were Brazilians Fred, Wellington Nem, Fernando, Bernard (a Ukrainian record €25m buy from Atlético Mineiro) and Argentine No.9 Facundo Ferreyra.
“We strive to form a new team, to reboot so to speak,” said Lucescu, known affectionately by his players as “Mister”. “Still, we lost five important players. The young players who replaced them should adapt to this football. Not only European, but in particular to very tough Ukrainian football. You see that not in every match their performance is top-notch. They play inconsistently. For now, Fred’s adaption is the best among the new signings. But I have patience, and the team are maturing.”
It has been far from an easy process, though, not helped by injuries to Fernando, Wellington Nem, Ferreyra and the relatively late arrival of Bernard. Lucescu was forced put his faith in last season’s players initially, yet missing the dynamism of Fernandinho, Mkhitaryan’s goals and the flair of Willian meant performances – and results – have not stood up to last season. The Romanian has stuck to his preferred formation, however, a simple 4-2-3-1 where the defensive positions are occupied by eastern Europeans and the attack staffed with creative Brazilians.
“I fielded the players who helped the team last season, but were not the fully-fledged first-team regulars,” said Lucescu after the game against Chornomorets, which more or less sums up the early part of Shakhtar’s Champions League campaign. “Now they are turning into leaders. I mean both [Alex] Teixeira and Douglas [Costa]. Based on what they do on the football field, they can be compared with Fernandinho, Willian and Mkhitaryan. This process is necessary for the team to reach a different level. But I cannot say that we play every match up to the standard we used to play last year. Young players don’t always find understanding our system easy.”
They do, though, end 2013 five points ahead of Dynamo Kyiv, but Shakhtar are very much a big fish in a small pond thanks to the investment of Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man. However, Shakhtar have dropped points in as many matches as they did in the whole of last season; what’s more, at this stage last year they were 10 points better off. This is a work in progress, a sort of Shakhtar 2.0.
But hope has been restored of late. “I believe that Shakhtar are gathering momentum,” said Srna after last week’s win in Odesa. “It is a pity that we will have a break, because Shakhtar play very well, the newcomers get more experienced, the team in general is progressing.” They are unbeaten in five. After a 4-0 defeat away at Leverkusen on Matchday Three, Shakhtar drew 0-0 with the Germans at the Donbass Arena and then handed out a 4-0 thumping of Real Sociedad to give themselves a fighting chance of making the last 16. But, despite their two recent losses United will start as favourites this evening.
Nevertheless, there is quiet optimism in eastern Ukraine that Shakhtar can sign off for the year with a result at Old Trafford.
Shakhtar Donetsk probable XI (4-2-3-1): Andriy Pyatov, Darijo Srna, Vyacheslav Shevchuk, Yaroslav Rakitskiy, Oleksandr Kucher, Taras Stepanenko, Fred, Bernard, Alex Teixeira, Douglas Costa, Luiz Adriano.
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