It has been a fantastic 18 months for Shakhtar Donetsk under Paulo Fonseca. Brought in to replace legendary coach Mircea Lucescu the Portuguese head coach has not just resurrected Shakhtar to become the top club in Ukrainian football once again, but he himself has become a coach linked with some of the biggest clubs in Europe when he was recently put on a list of potential Jupp Heynckes replacements at Bayern München.
In domestic football, Shakhtar won both the Ukrainian championship – with an unbelievable gap of 14-points to second-placed Dynamo Kyiv – and the Ukrainian Cup beating rivals Dynamo 1-0. In European football, things did, however, not always go quite so well for Fonseca. Eliminated by Young Boys Bern in the third round of qualifying – ironically YB Bern also eliminated Dynamo at the same stage this season – Shakhtar won all six UEFA Europa League matches only to be eliminated in the first knockout round by Athletic Bilbao after a questionable penalty call in the second leg.
It was the end of a European campaign that could have offered so much more for a team that plays some of the most attractive football on the continent. Always stereotyped as an eclectic mix of South American flair and Eastern European toughness Shakhtar have always been known as the most Brazilian side outside of Brazil. Nine Brazilians are joined by two Argentines, and it is true that the likes of Bernard, Taison, Marlos, who now plays for Ukraine, and Fred are the creative heard of the club.
With the Ukrainian Viktor Kovalenko Shakhtar, however, possess one of the brightest prospects in Eastern European football. The Ukrainian midfielder saw his star rising after Alex Teixeira left the club in February 2016. Played initially as an attacking midfielder Kovalenko has been moved further back by Fonseca and is now more of a creative deeplying midfielder. More importantly, however, Kovalenko somewhat defies the stereotype that it is only the Brazilians that can be creative in Shakhtar’s squad.
That creativity was especially on display during the UEFA Champions League group stage matches this season. With Fonseca winning the championship last season the focus was somewhat taken off the domestic season and towards doing well on the international stage. As a result Shakhtar, despite having the strongest squad in the league, are clear by just three points in the UPL ahead of the start of the second half of the season.
In the Champions League Shakhtar shocked Roma’s league competitor Napoli on matchday 1 winning 2-1 thanks to goals by Brazilian speedster Taison and Argentine attacking tank Facundo Ferreyra. It was a result that somewhat shocked Europe. Shakhtar, however, had made the most of switching home venues from Lviv to Kharkiv.
The war in the Donbass has meant that Shakhtar in general have been unable to play at the beautiful Donbass Arena in Donetsk. Built by billionaire owner Rinat Akhmetov the stadium was always a symbol of pride for the people of the Donbass. Steel and coal workers the Donbass region always had a different feel to the rest of Ukraine. Predominantly voting for independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 the region also never truly felt at home in Ukraine either, which led to the sort of volatile situation that resulted in open conflict in 2014.
For Shakhtar this has meant a prolonged stay in exile. First at home in Lviv the club seems to have settled much better in Kharkiv where many refugees from the Donbass have settled for the duration of the war. As a result, Shakhtar now have a real home away from home and this season has helped the club to achieve great results in the UEFA Champions League.
Following the victory against Napoli Shakhtar went to Manchester where City narrowly beat them and then defeated Feyenoord twice to take a commanding lead over Napoli, who lost both matches against Manchester City. Shakhtar then did lose against Napoli in Italy, and the Italians looked like they could pass the Ukrainians on the final matchday as Shakhtar hosted England’s most dominant team of the season.
Shakhtar, however, already showed in England that they were no pushovers and a double strike by the Brazilians Bernard and Ismaily gave them a 2-0 lead. A draw would have been enough, but Shakhtar saw out the game, winning 2-1. Hence, even if Napoli had won their final game against Feyenoord Shakhtar would have been through.
Now facing Roma, they are up against Italian opposition once again. With the first match at home Shakhtar will have to get a positive result to Italy if they want to reach the quarterfinals. With a fantastic attacking lineup that relies heavily on speed and creativity Donetsk could have the attacking power to hurt Roma. At the same time Shakhtar need to watch it at their own end as with Edin Džeko Roma possess a goalscoring guarantee.
Another downside for Shakhtar will be the fact that this will be only their second competitive game since mid-December. The Ukrainian Premier League shuts down for two-and-a-half months due to the winter and Shakhtar might still try to find their match form for this one. Overall this might be one of the most overlooked ties at this stage of the competition. Both teams like to play attacking football and have the sort of players that can make this game a joy for any football lover.
Writer: Manuel Veth/@manuelveth