Six months ago, as Mircea Lucescu reflected on the 3-0 defeat by Borussia Dortmund that had ended FC Shakhtar Donetsk's UEFA Champions League ambitions in the round of 16, he spoke of renewal, the need to evolve. It was a shared vision – the Romanian coach soon agreed a two-year contract extension – but the outlook was quickly obscured by the summer departures of Fernandinho, the midfield pivot, and top scorer Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The rebuilding would go right down to the foundations.
Those transfers did bring in almost €70m and much was reinvested in young South American talent. Their integration has not been easy, however. One by one, Fernando, Facundo Ferreyra and Wellington Nem went down with injury while Fred has had to learn a new role as box-to-box midfielder. Bernard, who commanded a Ukrainian record €25m fee, only arrived in Donetsk at the end of August, three weeks before the group stage kicked off.
Lucescu had no choice but to put his faith in the old guard, with Wellington Nem's injury meaning he was omitted from the UEFA Champions League squad. For the first three matchdays the starting XI was unchangeable, a weakened version of the 2012/13 vintage – shorn of Fernandinho, Mkhitaryan and Willian, who departed last winter – boosted by only one newcomer in Fernando. The attacking brand of football was stilted, the transitions slower. Results were a priority.
Initially Lucescu's pragmatic plan worked well. The Ukrainian champions drew on their European experience to defeat Real Sociedad de Fútbol away, and then shared the points with Manchester United FC at home. But at Bayer 04 Leverkusen on matchday three the fissures became real cracks, a 4-0 loss laying their weakness bare. It was time for a change.
In the rematch a fortnight later Lucescu turned to striker Ferreyra and winger Bernard, already a fans' favourite, from the off. Shakhtar suddenly had creativity and options going forward, they also looked convincing in defence. But they were very unlucky. Leverkusen goalkeeper Bernd Leno was man of the match in a 0-0 draw that leaves Shakhtar with it all to do in Group A, needing to beat Real Sociedad at home and United at Old Trafford.
Nevertheless, hope has been renewed. Shakhtar limped through the first half of the group phase with a vision of the old; the infusion of fresh legs on matchday four has put a spring in their step. As Lucescu said: "It is obvious that this young team wants to win. They will get results." The round of 16 still looks some way off but the team are going places again.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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