By Jonathan Wilson
There is a confidence about FC Shakhtar Donetsk these days - a swaggering sense that they are on the brink of something remarkable. They have won six out of six in Ukraine this season, and, after brushing aside FC Pyunik and Club Brugge KV in the qualifying rounds of the UEFA Champions League, they are optimistic of making an impact on the European stage as well.
"Our president Rinat Akhmetov always sets his sights as high as he can," Shakhtar captain Anatoliy Tymoschuk told uefa.com. "I think he is absolutely right to do that. Only cowards don't aim to be the best, and we're not among them."
The group stage draw could have been kinder to Shakhtar, and they could hardly have asked for tougher Matchday 1 visitors than AC Milan, but that has not dampened the enthusiasm of a club intoxicated by the progress they have made since Akhmetov became president of the club eight years ago.
"In the past our club aimed to be the best in Ukraine, but now we are aiming to be the best in Europe," Tymoschuk said. "Two years ago we won the Ukrainian championship for the first time in the club's history. We have obtained the instinct of winners and are beginning to talk of [FC] Dynamo Kyiv as equals."
Given the success Dynamo have had, winning all but two Ukrainian championships and reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League in 1999, that is a major step, and Shakhtar drew great encouragement from their performance on the opening day of the season when they beat Dynamo 2-0 in Kiev - the first time Dynamo had ever lost a home Ukrainian league game by more than one goal.
"Matches against Dynamo have a double value," Tymoschuk said. "I don't think the rivalry between us is any different to the rivalry between other top European teams. It mightn't have the history of [FC] Barcelona and Real Madrid [CF] or Manchester United [FC] and Arsenal [FC], but that is only a matter of time.
"Every victory over Dynamo is a personal affair for me, because I could have joined Dynamo when I was young. At that time Shakhtar were preparing the ground for future success, and I wanted to be part of that. So every time we beat them, it proves to me that I made the right decision."
It is not just Tymoschuk who enjoys wins at Dynamo, though. Shakhtar, perhaps more than any other club in Ukraine, are rooted in their community, the mining region of the Donbass. "Our team isn't limited to the eleven on the pitch," Tymoschuk said. "Reserve players, coaches, club officials and the leadership are all part of the team as well. And so is our vast army of fans from across the region."
The most significant member of the backroom brigade is almost certainly the Romanian coach Mircea Lucescu, who arrived from Besiktas JK just in time to guide Shakhtar to victory over FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in the Ukrainian Cup last May. Lucescu has reached European quarter-finals five times in the past, and Tymoschuk sees no reason why he should not do so again with Shakhtar.
"My first impressions of him have convinced me that he will not rest on the cup victory, nor will he allow any player to," he said. Milan may yet find their trip to Donetsk to be a chastening experience.
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