FC Shakhtar Donetsk made European headlines – good and bad – as they clinched their place in the UEFA Champions League round of 16 on matchday five.
The 5-2 win against FC Nordsjælland in Denmark showed the ruthless streak in Mircea Lucescu's team, though Luiz Adriano subsequently received a one-match ban for violating the principles of conduct – after scoring the first goal of his hat-trick following a drop ball which was meant to result in possession being given back to the opposition. After the game, the striker, his coach and even the club's president apologised, with the Brazilian certain to get a fine from his club, who are eager to preserve their good image in Europe.
The whole incident could even have a positive outcome for Shakhtar, who are sure to redouble their efforts and increase their focus when they entertain Juventus next week, keen to ensure they stand out once more for their footballing abilities. Shakhtar have already attained their first target of the year by going through the group stage, but finishing off 2012 on a high now seems like a point of honour.
Shakhtar drew 1-1 at Juventus on matchday two and might easily have won; they scored first and, while their hosts were level within two minutes, the Ukrainian side looked the more dangerous team for the remainder of the night – coming agonizingly close to a winner when Willian hit the bar in second-half stoppage time. That served as a message to Chelsea FC and Juventus that Shakhtar were not about to settle for a UEFA Europa League place.
Right after the group stage draw, Lucescu had stated his intention of reaching the round of 16 and, if that appeared a tall order given the pedigree of their Group E opponents, the Romanian coach has been true to his word. Holders Chelsea were lucky to leave the Donbass Arena with a relatively dignified 2-1 scoreline on matchday three, and doubly fortunate to beat the Pitmen 3-2 at home two weeks later with a late goal, on what was an off-night for goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov.
Luiz Adriano's transgression in Copenhagen may have overshadowed the win that put Shakhtar through, yet no one could say their success has not been richly deserved. That is no small achievement considering Shakhtar finished bottom of a section featuring FC Zenit St Petersburg, FC Porto and APOEL FC last term.
Whichever way you look at it, Shakhtar are having a terrific season: 21 victories in 24 competitive outings, with an aggregate score of 70-18; 11 points clear at the top of the Ukrainian Premier League, and on course for an eighth title since 2002.
Ukrainian championships, however, are no longer the limit of Shakhtar's ambition. In years gone by, just getting a group stage place was a feat, but ever since the Pitmen lifted the UEFA Cup in 2008/09, their horizons have grown. The only way they can top that is by winning the UEFA Champions League – and seeing how they have performed against two European heavyweights in this group stage, that no longer resembles an impossible dream.
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