Shakhtar Donetsk enjoy a well deserved reputation as one of football’s fastest-evolving teams. Speedy and spectacular, their transformation from an unfashionable club in an industrial Ukrainian outpost to UEFA Cup winners in 2009 and current UEFA Champions League quarter-finalists is worthy of hearty acclaim.
Recognised last year by the respected International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS) as the decade’s ‘Most Improved Team’, Shakhtar’s response was simply to set their sights higher, enhancing their already attractive style of play with yet more eye-catching South American recruits. Six Brazilians, not including the Rio de Janeiro-born Croatia international Eduardo, currently ply their trade at the Donbass Arena, and the sight of Douglas Costa, Willian et al – bedecked in gloves, tights and several layers – dazzling in the snow and sleet has guaranteed them much of the limelight.
Yet while Mircea Lucescu takes pride in having brought South American style to Donetsk, describing his team as “the most Brazilian in Europe”, he has built his side’s success on an eastern European foundation. This might seem a ridiculous assertion given that the 65-year-old has signed 12 Brazilians during his impressive seven-year reign, but while most of those have come and gone inside a couple of seasons, it is revealing to look at the players who have stayed put.
At left-back, Lucescu’s fellow Romanian, Razvan Rat, has been with the club for eight years, while Czech utility man Tomas Hubschman and homegrown centre-half Dmytro Chygrynskiy signed up a year later. All have been key components ever since, save for the season Chygrynskiy spent in Spain following his ill-fated €25m move to tonight’s Champions League opponents, Barcelona.
Shakhtar are one of the best teams in Europe, so it makes no sense to go anywhere. Shakhtar gave me a lot in life and I will likely finish my career here.
Then there is the team’s captain, Darijo Srna. The Croatia skipper was just 21 when he moved to Donetsk eight years ago, but he has spent most of the time since setting the standard for those around him. He might not hit possess the glamour of his Brazilian colleagues, but Srna – described as the most underrated player in Europe by international colleague Niko Kranjcar – has done more than any other player to elevate Shakhtar to their current status.
Man of the match when Shakhtar beat Werder Bremen to become the first Ukrainian team since independence to win a European trophy, the 28-year-old commands huge respect in his adopted country, where he has been voted the league’s best foreign player for the last two years. Plenty of major clubs have also noted his colossal contribution, and Srna seemed set for a £14m move to Chelsea last summer only for loyalty, and a belief in Shakhtar’s ambition, to prompt a last-minute change of heart.
“If I had not developed as a player here I would probably have left,” he explained. “But where should I go if I play in a team that two years ago won the UEFA Cup and every year play in the Champions League? There is a magnificent stadium, there are big ambitions. Shakhtar are one of the best teams in Europe, so it makes no sense to go anywhere. Shakhtar gave me a lot in life and I will likely finish my career here.”
His decision vindicated by the club’s place among the last eight of Europe’s elite club competition, Srna is nonetheless well aware that he and his team-mates face their stiffest test yet. Winning a group that included Arsenal was impressive, beating Roma home and away even more so, but the Ukrainians now find their route to the semi-finals blocked by a team acclaimed by some, Srna included, as the greatest ever seen.
“This Barcelona are the best team in football history,” he said. “But because of that, there is no pressure on us. Of course it will be hard, but we can promise that we will give our best and try to record a decent scoreline in Barcelona. And it will be hard for anyone to beat us at the Donbass Arena.”
He knows that he doesn't want to play against Shakhtar in the quarters. Barcelona had three matches against us and all were very difficult.
This latter comment is something of an understatement. After all, it is now almost two-and-a-half years since Shakhtar were last beaten at home, while the imposing Donbass – which opened in 2009 – has never witnessed a defeat for the men in orange. Of course, the man who has overseen this run, and who is arguably the only one more deserving of praise than Srna for the club’s rise, is Lucescu.
Few would have envisaged the veteran Romanian lasting this long when he arrived in 2004 as Shakhtar’s fifth coach in six years, but four national titles, that coveted European crown and a stylish brand of football have earned the faith of his employers and the admiration of his contemporaries. Pep Guardiola certainly realises that he faces a worthy adversary in the man he described this week as a “wily old cat”, and recalls well that his side were not only beaten by Lucescu’s team at Camp Nou, but also needed extra time to see them off in the UEFA Super Cup.
"It hasn't been that long since we played them; they're still doing things in a similar fashion," said Guardiola. "They have won the UEFA Cup recently and furthermore we remember how tricky it was to beat them in the Super Cup. They've only lost to Arsenal in Europe this season. If the Champions League was a global league it would be them who lead the way with most points.”
Barcelona remain firm favourites, but Lucescu knows that Guardiola’s wary words, far from an insincere attempt at diplomacy, convey genuine respect. "He knows that he doesn't want to play against Shakhtar in the quarters,” said the Romanian. “Barcelona had three matches against us and all were very difficult. Now the problem is they were warned. Barcelona know what they can expect from us."
As the Catalans and the rest of world football have come to realise, that is nothing but the very best.