FC Shakhtar Donetsk have come a long way since Mircea Lucescu took over back in 2004. Charged with turning the club into a European force, the Romanian tactician accomplished the first stage of his mission by leading his charges to UEFA Cup success in 2009. Now the former FC Internazionale Milano and Galatasaray AŞ coach has loftier ambitions; the UEFA Champions League is in his sights, and AS Roma, Wednesday's round of 16 opponents, have stepped into his path.
"It all started six years ago, when I took over at Shakhtar," Lucescu told UEFA.com. "President [Rinat] Akhmetov asked me to create a team capable of competing internationally. He wanted to win a European trophy and we managed to do it against Werder Bremen in the UEFA Cup final in Istanbul."
That victory represented the first major European triumph for Ukrainian club football since independence, but Lucescu was convinced his side were good enough to kick on. This season the Pitmen have proved him right, reaching the UEFA Champions League last 16 for the first time by topping a group including Arsenal FC. "We wanted to get to the knockout stage for the first time and, after missing out before, we finally managed it this season – and deservedly so," he said.
A significant factor in Shakhtar's progress has been the Brazilian players whose skills Lucescu has carefully adapted to the more rigorous demands of Premier League football in Ukraine. "We decided that we needed to create a nucleus of very skilful players," he said. "Football here is a lot more aggressive, more physical and faster. But as they had excellent technical skills, we were able to build the rest.
I think that at the moment Shakhtar are the most Brazilian team in Europe."
That is not the whole story, though. The 65-year-old has also been at pains to develop Ukrainian prospects, in order to perfect a blend of foreign flair and native savoir-faire. "I like working with young players because I am interested in teaching them to become great performers. We are probably the youngest of all the teams in the knockout stages of the Champions League. Against Braga, we fielded five players under 21."
To advance to the last eight – a feat he first achieved with Galatasaray in 2001 – Lucescu must next overcome Roma, whom Shakhtar meet at the Stadio Olimpico on Wednesday. The last time the clubs met in Rome, in September 2006, the Giallorossi ran out 4-0 winners. Even though Lucescu is expecting a "very hot atmosphere" in the Eternal City and considers Claudio Ranieri's team as Serie A title contenders, he nonetheless sees the gap between the sides closing.
"The fans [in Rome] create a certain pressure on opponents, but also on their own team," he said. "Certainly, what we learned from that last game will help us this time. I am convinced about that. Also the difference in class between football in eastern and western Europe is narrowing. Many talented players have come to the east.
The UEFA Cup wins by Galatasaray, CSKA Moskva, Zenit and Shakhtar mean these countries have greater hope for Champions League success."
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