Given the Champions League group that Arsenal drew, Manchester United’s followers probably felt a little smug on Thursday evening. Yet on closer inspection, David Moyes’ side face a more taxing post-Christmas schedule than they might have hoped for, given Real Sociedad and Bayer Leverkusen’s lightning-fast attacking movement—and the presence of Shakhtar Donetsk.
A respected name on the European competition scene for some years, Shakhtar stepped up a level in the last campaign, facing down Champions League holders Chelsea and Serie A champions Juventus to qualify first from a tough-looking group—leaving the Blues as the first winners not to make it out of the following season’s group stage.
The serial Ukrainian champions arrived into that situation in prime form, having won a national record 19 consecutive league games.
The confidence coursing through Mircea Lucescu’s side was clear, even at the home of a side unbeaten in 45 domestic matches.
Shakhtar went for the jugular, propelled by Fernandinho and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in midfield and Luiz Adriano and Willian further forward. Goalscorer Alex Teixeira even spoke after the game about how “disappointed” they were to only take a 1-1 draw back from Turin.
That swaggering side, which infused the passing game for which they had become famed with a razor-sharp cutting edge, went on to beat Chelsea at their formidable Donbass Arena and nearly managed a repeat performance at Stamford Bridge, falling short as they were hampered by the erratic goalkeeping of Andriy Pyatov.
They are some way from that peak now.
They were knocked off the top of the Ukrainian Premier League at the weekend by Metalist Kharkiv after conceding a late equaliser to the very same team at the Donbass, scored by Marko Devic, a player Shakhtar sold back to the visitors in the summer.
It was a second successive winless game following their shock 3-1 loss at Dnipro last week, with Pyatov again at fault on the goals.
Shakhtar have developed beyond recognition under Rinat Akhmetov since the oligarch took control of the club in the 1990s, but one wonders whether the highly successful model that’s taken them to this point needs a tweak.
They have done well over the last decade in attracting young South American talent and then selling on at a profit, but since the turn of the year they’ve lost Willian, Mkhitaryan, Fernandinho and the experienced Razvan Rat—and it seems like this time, it might be too much.
Prudent sellers are still sellers, and Shakhtar’s noted stability has been called into question.
Shakhtar have been here before, and relatively recently. There was a feeling that they were going stale when they finished a humiliating bottom of their Champions League group in 2011/12 (allowing minnows APOEL to win the pool) and there was strong speculation that Lucescu would move on.
Instead, it acted as the kick up the backside that a coasting set of players needed. Aided by the return of Fernandinho from a broken leg, they reacted in the best possible way to their elimination from Europe, powering to a third successive league title (they have since snared a fourth).
Lucescu will hope Shakhtar can do so again.
There is little doubt that Fernandinho has been the biggest loss; at the club for eight years, he wasn’t just the powerhouse on the pitch, but a strong leader off it. A fluent Russian speaker, the now-Manchester City midfielder was the "dad" of the group. What he said went, simply.
President Akhmetov could never abide Shakhtar standing still, and has invested £59 million on players to cover the losses, including £21 million on Brazil midfielder Bernard.
Yet new leaders will have to emerge if they are to push United as they did Chelsea.