Shakhtar Donetsk took little time to hurl the cat among the pigeons in a Champions League group most observers expected to be dominated by Napoli and Manchester City, with the Ukrainian side and Feyenoord making up the numbers.
While the Dutch champions duly crumbled at home against City in the last round of fixtures, the Ukrainian side’s 2-1 victory against the Italian league leaders was one of few surprises across the competition.
Shakhtar still have plenty more to do to break the perceived duopoly established at the group stage draw in Monaco a month ago. Next up are City and bookmakers make Paulo Fonseca’s side big-priced outsiders to secure even a draw at the Etihad Stadium against a team who put four past Feyenoord and average more than three goals a game in the Premier League.
Playing away from home is unlikely to be much of an inconvenience for Shakhtar players who have got used to travelling long distances. The ongoing conflict between Ukrainian armed forces and pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk means Shakhtar last played at their own Donbass Arena in 2014 and they hold home games at the OSK Metalist Stadium in Kharkiv, almost 500km from their training base in Kyiv. Shakhtar fans wishing to watch their team play in their current lodgings face a 600km round trip from Donetsk to this former home of the now defunct FC Metalist Kharkiv, who went out of business last year.
This is the first meeting of City and Shakhtar, although the clubs do have previous in the transfer market. The City midfielder Fernandinho arrived from the Ukrainian side in 2013, and before him Elano established himself as a fan favourite during a two-year stay. The famously lucrative “Brazilian colony” from which both players came was established at Shakhtar by the former manager Mircea Lucescu and remains very much in place, with the club currently boasting seven in the squad. One of them, Taison, scored their opener against Napoli, while the wingers Bernard and Marlos are also first-team regulars. In the outstanding Fred they have a footballer recently cited by his own manager as the best Brazilian midfielder currently playing the game.
Heavily linked with Everton before Ronald Koeman got the manager’s job at Goodison Park, Fonseca had exceedingly big boots to fill after taking over from the iconic Romanian Lucescu, who won eight league titles, six Ukrainian cups and the Europa League during his 12 years in charge of Shakhtar. Following an undistinguished playing career as a central defender, Fonseca won the Portuguese Cup with FC Braga, having first made his name during two managerial stints at Paços Ferreira which bookended an unsuccessful spell at Porto.
In May last year the 44-year-old was unveiled as Lucescu’s successor and went on to win the domestic treble of league, cup and super cup in his first season, earning the club a return to the Champions League after a one-year absence. Shakhtar finished 13 points clear of their closest rival, Dynamo Kyiv, last season, a swing of 20 from when they came second to Dynamo in Lucescu’s final campaign.
Having lost just once in 12 matches in all competitions this season, Shakhtar arrive in Manchester in fine form and despite City’s impressive start to the season, seem unlikely to be the pushovers odds-compilers expect.
In Ukraine, against largely inferior opposition, Fonseca’s side play an expansive, possession-based attacking style, spending as much time as possible in the final third and making good use of their wide men to deliver crosses. In Europe, however, the manager has conceded he needs to rein in his baser impulses and against Napoli, Shakhtar scored an early goal and sat back before nicking another on the break. A penalty from Arkadiusz Milik left them worried towards the end, but with the defence creaking they managed to hold on for a win the Italian side’s manager, Maurizio Sarri, magnanimously insisted they deserved.
“We changed our preparations a bit but we need to keep faith with our style,” Fonseca had said in the buildup. “It’s not a physical game. We like to dominate the play and have plenty of the ball.”
Having already lost the central defender Serhiy Kryvtsov indefinitely to a fractured knee cap, Fonseca will also be without his talismanic on-field mouthpiece and adopted son of Shakhtar, Darijo Srna, for the foreseeable future.
A player with Shakhtar since 2003, the Croatian full-back was informed he had failed a drug test last week and is taking a self-imposed break from football to try and clear his name. Srna insists he is innocent and the 35-year-old’s absence will be keenly felt by a team that has already been forced to overcome more than its fair share of problems on and off the pitch in recent years.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010