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Champions League

Brazilian connection makes Miners dark horses for Champions League glory

It’s been a tough old season for Shakhtar Donetsk, despite a domestic double that has become a matter of course for the Miners, they could have achieved so much more. Since Mircea Lucescu joined the club in 2004, Shaktar have racked up seven league titles and four league cups, including three consecutive doubles in the last three seasons, with an extremely impressive, fluid attacking side.

Shaktar have also impressed on the European stage, winning the Uefa Cup in 2009 and often progressing through the group stage of the Champions League. 2013 was touted as Shaktar’s year; always feared opponents, last year’s impressive side were labelled dark horses to upset the apple cart and indeed, the Miners progressed from a difficult group at the expense of then holders Chelsea. After this however, things started to unravel; in January star player Willian left for then big spending Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala and Febuary’s credible draw was followed by a 3-0 away loss to eventual Champions League finalists Dortmund. Shaktar again crashed out at the last 16 of the Champions League, a round they have never bettered.

Champions League disappointment was no doubt in part linked to Shaktar’s sale of Willian, and fans will have been concerned at the further sales of star midfielders Fernandinho and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Fans concerns are justified, between these three players, Shaktar have lost 42 goals from last season.

However, there is plenty of reason for Shaktar fans to be hopeful as the Miners have once again made excellent use of their Brazillian connection, having raided the South American country of four of its finest young players; Bernard, Wellington Nem, Fernando and Fred. Eastern Europe has increasingly been becoming a common destination for South American players and Shaktar have certainly proved to be experts in selecting players from this pool, with many South Americans still at the club, and star alumni including Jádson and the aforementioned Willian and Fernandinho.

This current crop of Brazilian signings, along with Argentine Facundo Ferreyra, hit 35 goals between them last term and will certainly help fill the gap left by Shaktar’s departed stars, but more than that, these signings are a real statement of intent by Shaktar’s owners.

By reinvesting nearly all of the reported £60million raked in through player sales, Shaktar are showing real ambition to continue their domestic domination and finally progress beyond the last 16 of the Champions League. They have also pulled off some real coups in this summer’s transfer market; Arsenal target Bernard and former Gremio player Fernando have both been regular inclusions in recent Brazil squads, whilst Fred and Wellington Nem were two of the most sought after players in the Brazilian league.

The signing of Facundo Ferreyra is less surprising, but Shaktar have still done well to see of Italian interest for the Argentine who was the leading goal scorer in last season’s title winning Vélez Sársfield side. Shaktar have started their domestic campaign with four wins, with only Bernard yet to start, having only been recently signed, and Fred and Wellington Nem already opening their goal accounts. The new signings have yet to all be played together due to domestic restrictions dictating a minimum number of Ukrainians be on the pitch at each time.

In the Champions League there are no such restrictions and if Shaktar are able to fulfil their potential and get a little luck in each draw, then the Miners certainly have a squad equipped to compete with the big boys of European football. In Yaroslav Rakitskiy Shaktar possess a versatile defender who has shone at left back in recent games but can also do a job in the centre and at right back, Darijo Srna has been consistently brilliant season upon season, providing chances from deep and excellent dead ball delivery.

Centre back is perhaps an area that could do with strengthening, but if Lucescu can coax out of Dmytro Chygrynskiy the form that earned him his ill-fated 2009 move to Barcelona, then the Miners will have a fine ball playing defender at their disposal. If there is a weakness in the Shaktar team then it is probably in goal, with Pyatov prone to making mistakes at the highest level.

However, in midfield Shaktar look truly exciting; whilst often deployed as an attacking midfielder, Fred looked most impressive when used in a deeper role by former club Internacional, excelling as a box to box player and will no doubt form a formidable partnership with holding player Fernando. With Fernando shielding the defence and Fred linking defence and attack, Bernard, Wellington Nem and Douglas Costa will be free to cause torment defenders.

Wellington Nem and Bernard are both inside forwards, operating on the right and left respectively, both will cut inside to shoot and link up with whoever is deployed in attacking midfield; likely Douglas Costa. With the option to deploy an all Brazillian midfield (other options include Taison, Ilsinho and Alex Teixeira) communication shouldn’t be a problem, with such a fluid and offensive unit bound to contribute goals, as well as creating chances galore for one of Shaktar’s impressive array of forwards (Ferreyra joins Brazilian Luiz Adriano and former Arsenal star Eduardo).

Whilst a Champions League triumph is probably still beyond Shakar Donetsk, if the Miner’s young, new additions continue to develop and gel as a unit, don’t be surprised to see Shaktar to go beyond their usual last 16 finish.