FC Shakhtar Donetsk enhanced their status as the surprise package of this UEFA Champions League season when, in the round of 16 for the first time, they gained a 3-2 first-leg win against AS Roma last month.
As they prepare to host the Giallorossi in Tuesday's return match, it is worth bearing in mind that the Pitmen have not lost at home since 22 October 2008 and a 1-0 defeat by Sporting Clube de Portugal. With the quarter-finals in their sights, the reasons for Shakhtar's rise on the European stage can be explained fourfold.
In a recent interview with UEFA.com, Mircea Lucescu described his side as "the most Brazilian team in Europe". After all, eight of Shakhtar's squad hail from the South American nation – Luiz Adriano, Fernandinho, Willian, Jadson, Douglas Costa, Alex Teixeira, Eduardo and Marcelo Moreno – even if the last two are Croatian and Bolivian internationals respectively.
Almost all are forward-thinking players whose style defines Shakhtar's attacking prowess. For example, of the 38 goals recorded by Lucescu's table-topping team in 19 Ukrainian Premier League games before the winter break, 31 were scored by the aforementioned Brazilians. They have also accounted for 11 of Shakhtar's 15 goals in their seven European matches this term.
Eastern European backbone
Even so, it would be wrong to view Shakhtar in purely Brazilian terms. In addition to other players, Lucescu boasts a pair of wing backs that would make any coach proud – Croatian international and club captain Darijo Srna on the right and, down the left, Romania skipper Răzvan Raţ, whose national coach is Razvan Lucescu, Mircea's son.
Finally, goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov and centre-backs Dmytro Chygrynskiy and Yaroslav Rakitskiy make up the backbone of the Ukrainian national side while the versatile trio of Vitaliy Vitsenets, Serhiy Kryvtsov and Taras Stepanenko helped the country's Under-21 squad qualify for this summer's UEFA European Championship in Denmark.
Thanks to these players, Shakhtar have statistically one of the meanest defences in Europe – seven goals conceded in the first half of the Premier League campaign is testimony to that.
Their watershed moment came in 2008/09 when, having finished third in their UEFA Champions League group, they won the final edition of the UEFA Cup. Earlier in the same season there had been talk of Lucescu being fired; instead, the experienced Romanian – nicknamed 'Mister' from his exploits in Italy – lifted Ukraine's first European club trophy. That triumph against SV Werder Bremen in Istanbul massively relieved the pressure on coach and players.
Transfer policy & youth development
Credit then to Lucescu, who has continued to seek perfection and mould his charges in order to make Shakhtar a greater force in Europe. The 65-year-old, who favours players that he thinks are ready to become leaders when opportunity knocks, likes to compare his side to Arsenal FC.
Perhaps the most obvious comparison between the clubs is their policy of recruiting lesser-known prospects rather than ready-made stars. In other words, Shakhtar are keen to sign hungry players. Aside from drafting in youngsters, the Ukrainian champions have also started to place more emphasis on sourcing local talent through their academy and scouting network. So, Shakhtar's secret is finding and nurturing hidden talent through education, teamwork and coaching. Maybe, then, the biggest secret is Lucescu himself.
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