Group Stage Fan Preview: Shakhtar

Shakhtar head into this season’s Champions League optimistic that they can improve on last year’s 2nd Round performance and repeat the feat of 2010/11 when the Miners reached the Quarter Finals, for the one and only time, so far.

Having won the Ukrainian Premier League (UPL) for 11th time last season, Shakhtar automatically qualified for the group stages, avoiding the qualifiers that took the scalp of domestic arch rivals Dynamo Kyiv. This means that once again, Shakhtar are the only Ukrainian representatives in the continents premier club competition.  

Despite suffering two defeats to Dynamo already this season, one in the Ukrainian Super Cup and one in the UPL, Paulo Fonseca’s side have taken control of the league with free scoring displays and capitalising on the dropped points of other rivals. In the 7 games so far, Shakhtar have already scored 18 goals and will be looking to continue this fine scoring for when the Champions League kicks off properly.

Over the summer, Shakhtar saw some important and big name players depart the club. Fred was the highest profile of these as he joined English side Manchester United in a deal reportedly worth over £50million. Last season’s top scorer Facundo Ferreyra departed on a free (to Benfica) as did Bernard (to Everton) and club legend and long term captain Darijo Srna (Cagliari, albeit he didn’t appear for Shakhtar after September 2017 as a result of a drugs ban).

Despite these high profile exits, Shakhtar have once again recruited well to ensure a seamless transition and a continuation of the attractive and fluent style of play. Junior Moraes joined on a free in a controversial move from rivals Dynamo, which has seen him become a pariah to the fans of the White and Blues, but he has certainly brought his shooting boots to Shakhtar as he has already scored seven league goals in as many games, including a hat trick on match day six in the 5:2 derby route of Olympik Donetsk. Other new signings have including Fernando (Palmeiras; €5.5m), Marquinos (Sao Paulo; €1m), Maycon (Corinthians; €6.6m) and the permanent transfer of Olarenwaju Kayode (Man City; €3m following loan spell). All these new signings have however followed the established model of slow integration into the team, to avoid too much disruption.

One of the most important signings over the summer however, was that of Paulo Fonseca. The Portugese head coach signed a contract extension with Shakhtar, despite being continuously linked with high profile jobs outside of Ukraine, including with Arsenal and Everton in England. Fonseca has continued the style that was crafted over a long period of time by predecessor Mirce Lucescu and continued to bring the success, with two consecutive doubles. Fonseca will of course be looking to make his mark in Europe, aiming to make the extra step for Shakhtar to reach the quarter finals again or even match Dynamo Kyiv’s achievement of the semi-finals. Here is hoping that Fonseca once again dons his Zorro Mask, after he seals qualification for the knock out stages.

Existing stars have continued to play a solid role in The Miners start to the season, with Marlos and Taison once again excelling, scoring goals and contributing to assists. The spine of the side remains established, Andriy Pyatov in goal, Yaroslav Rakitskyi in defence, Taras Stepanenko midfield, with Taison and Marlos providing the flair. Shakhtar will look to play a fluent 4-2-3-1, which can be molded into a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-2-2 depending on how the game is progressing. Fonseca is keen on organisation and a balance between attack and defence, keen not to leave the defence exposed or the attack isolated. Shakhtar like to dominate possession domestically, but are also capable of mixing it up or playing more direct balls or counter attacking if the situation suits it. Yaroslav Rakitskyi has a long range of passing and also a formidable left foot and isn’t afraid to shoot from distance with. Shakhtar will look to press opposition and can cause trouble as they showed Man City in both games of the previous campaign.  

While dominating domestically, the Champions League is the real barometer for progress for Shakhtar. The Miners have once again been handed a difficult group, despite being in the 2nd seeding pot for the competition. Once again, Shakhtar will face off against Man City in the group stages. The two sides met in the 2016/17 campaign with Shakhtar somewhat unfortunate to lose at the Etihad stadium, but very much deserving of their win in the final group stage fixture at the Metalist Stadium. Lyon will provide another formidable test but Shakhtar have the capability to overcome the French bronze medal finishers. Hoffenheim present something of a more unknown quantity, the Germans failed to reach the Champions League Group Stages last time round, but made their debut in the Europa League Groups but disappointed. Shakhtar have never played Lyon or Hoffenheim so both could be regarded as unknowns, but Shakhtar will certainly fancy their chances of continuing in the Champions League into the New Year. Anything less will be something of a disappointment, but a Europa League qualification is the minimum expectation and will still be seen as something of a disappointment and step back.    

Shakhtar will once again be playing their Champions League games in Kharkiv at the Metalist Stadium. Shakhtar played all their Champions League games at the Metalist Stadium in 2017/18 for the first time and won all three games in the group stages, with notable scalps against Man City and Napoli. A repeat of this record will surely set the Miners on the way to the knock out stages. Shakhtar don’t have the best away record in Europe, so home form could be crucial. Shakhtar are unable to play their home games at the fantastic Donbas Arena as Donetsk and a wider area are still occupied by Russian forces, meaning the area is not safe for Ukrainians or visiting sides.

Expectations – Minimum 2nd Round – Anything less is considered a disappointment and regression. The only consolation to going out would be a run deep in to the final stages of the Europa League. Reaching the quarter finals or further would be a historic achievement.

Star Player – Marlos – A long standing and important member of the team, Marlos will contribute both goals and assists. Alongside Taison, helps get Shakhtar going and as a senior player on the pitch is considered a leader.

One to watch – Junior Moraes – The new signing from Dynamo has made an instant impact with Shakhtar. He scored 7 goals in the Europa League for Dynamo last season and will look to replicate this with his new side in the Champions League

Weaklink – Andriy Pyatov – Although a long standing member of the club and considered a legend, Pyatov is prone to costly high profile gaffs. He was at fault in both defeats to Dynamo this season and he will need to stop them in order for Shakhtar to make an impact on the competition.

By: @DonetskWay2012

Photo: Shakhtar Website