Last season's UEFA Cup winners FC Shakhtar Donetsk cruised through the group stage of the new UEFA Europa League, but captain Dario Srna is mindful that they could be rusty as they resume their campaign with a round of 32 first-leg trip to Fulham FC.
Shakhtar, whose European season actually began on 29 July against FC Timişoara in the UEFA Champions League third qualifying round, secured progress from their UEFA Europa League pool with two games to spare. However, the Ukrainian league does not restart until the end of February, meaning the Miners have not played a competitive game since their 1-0 loss at FK Partizan on 16 December, in contrast to Fulham who have had 13 matches in the Premier League and FA Cup since their last European outing.
"We're just re-entering the season, so we are not at 100% yet," Srna told UEFA.com. "In January and February we played a couple of friendlies but, of course, they are not as intensive as Europa League games. On the other hand, Fulham play twice a week, they're in good condition now so they have a small advantage."
Fulham's busy programme has at least given Shakhtar plenty of material for when they studied their opponents last week. "Our opponents are very obstinate," Srna said. "Their defence is quite reliable. Fulham have plenty of experienced players and players that are really strong and physically fit."
Despite that, the 27-year-old Croatian international is quite sure Shakhtar are favourites to win the tie over the next two Thursdays. "No doubt it will be a very hard match, but I am positive that we'll pass this test," he said. "Fulham are really solid at home, they don't just defend in London. They need to score, so it will be an open affair. I believe Shakhtar are more skilful, we are better with the ball. If we can combine those qualities with discipline, everything will be fine."
Another thing in Shakhtar's favour could be experience; while Fulham are playing only their 25th UEFA competition fixture, Srna alone will be marking his 73rd such appearance for the Ukrainian club since joining in 2003. "A year ago we played in London against Tottenham Hotspur FC, also in the round of 32", Srna said. "After a 2-0 home victory we were under real pressure in the second leg. The hosts open the scoring and easily could have doubled their advantage. Only Fernandinho's goal held off their charge. Well, these kind of matches only make us stronger."
They are certainly up for this challenge, not distracted by their title race with FC Dynamo Kyiv, who Shakhtar trail by two points with a UEFA Champions League group berth the prize for the winners. "The stakes will be much higher for us against Fulham," Srna said. "Shakhtar already proved that last season – we won the UEFA Cup for a reason. Without any doubt our motivation will be the highest possible."
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