Winning the final edition of the UEFA Cup in May was a major breakthrough for FC Shakhtar Donetsk, but with the new Ukrainian Premier League season due to start at the weekend, Mircea Lucescu's men have set their sights on a new set of goals.
The Pitmen conducted their pre-season affairs in Austria and Swizerland, defying rainswept Austrian conditions to collect a pair of low-profile wins before heading across the border to meet some more challenging opponents. They began by seeing off both FC Aarau and FC Basel 1893, but came unstuck against BSC Young Boys, SL Benfica and Zamalek SC, while also drawing with Le Mans UC 72.
Those setbacks are unlikely to disturb a squad still buzzing after giving Ukrainian football its first European trophy since independence, although they face starting the campaign without Lucescu as he spends time in hospital to overcome reported heart problems. In a statement on Shakhtar's official website, the Romanian assured fans that he is "OK" and "will be back at work soon". He joked that he planned to run away to take training, but had been told to take his treatment seriously by doctors.
Shakhtar's squad remains mainly unchanged since their 2-1 extra-time defeat of Werder Bremen in Istanbul. The only newcomers are versatile Ukrainian midfielder Vasyl Kobin, signed from FC Karpaty Lviv, and Nigerian striker Julius Aghahowa, who previously represented the club between 2000 and 2006. More importantly, Lucescu has managed to hold on to his most coveted players, in particular central defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy and full-back Darijo Srna, the former being guarded jealously and the latter expressing his desire to stay put.
"We have already discussed our main goals for the season with the players," explained Lucescu, who will be keen to discover his team's UEFA Champions League third qualifying round opponents in today's draw. "The first and foremost is of course qualifying for the UEFA Champions League group stage. If we do that, we will strive to make it to the knockout stage. Besides that, it is also very important for us to start the league strongly. We have to win it because it will allow us to qualify straight for the group stage of the next Champions League. I believe we deserve automatic qualification, but we have to prove that on the domestic stage."
Shakhtar were pipped to the 2008/09 crown by FC Dynamo Kyiv because of their poor start to the league campaign, and they are understandably keen not to repeat that mistake this term. That means setting the right tone at home against FC Kryvbas Kryvyi Rih on Saturday, the same day titleholders Dynamo host FC Chornomorets Odesa with new coach Valeri Gazzaev at the helm. Outside of the big two, meanwhile, FC Metalist Kharkiv, FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, FC Vorskla Poltava and FC Metallurg Donetsk will all be hoping to have their own say this season.
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