Can Shakhtar Donetsk gatecrash western Europe’s party?
Shakhtar Donetsk’s impressive 3-2 win at AS Roma in their Champions League last 16, first leg match was perhaps overshadowed by Arsenal’s unlikely comeback against Barcelona on the same night, but it will have nonetheless reverberated around Europe.
It would be audacious to expect Shakhtar to appear in the final at Wembley in May, but the Ukrainian champions appear to have one foot in the last eight after a textbook display of counter-attacking football at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.
It came after equally inspired performances in the group phase of the competition, where they finished top of their pool ahead of Arsenal to reach the knockout stage for the first time.
Shakhtar’s rise from relative obscurity started in 1996 when wealthy Ukrainian businessman Rinat Akhmetov became the club’s president, but they had to wait until 2002 to lift their first league title.
Years of investment and team-building quickly began to pay dividends as Shakhtar dismantled traditional rivals Dynamo Kiev as the country’s flag carrier in Europe, winning another three league titles in just four seasons before they captured the UEFA Cup in 2009.
Having won their fifth league title last season, Shakhtar look assured of adding a sixth as they enjoy the cushion of a whopping 12-point lead over Dynamo at the winter break, while breaking into Europe’s elite on a long-term basis is also a realistic possibility.
Unlike most eastern European clubs, Shakhtar are not forced to sell their most talented players to stay afloat and building the five-star Donbass Arena, which opened in 2009, epitomised their financial muscle and the ability to compete with more familiar Champions League names.
Foreign legions can also be a major risk when coaches struggle to bring together different playing cultures and habits, but a blend of six relatively anonymous Brazilians and a bunch of home-grown stalwarts has worked to perfection at Shakhtar.
With each new goal they score for Shakhtar at the highest level, the likes of Jadson, Luiz Adriano and Douglas Costa will edge closer to becoming household names in Europe, especially if they are lured away to stronger leagues than Ukraine’s.
Shakhtar’s bid to establish themselves as a new powerhouse may well depend on the club’s ability to turn down seemingly inevitably offers from Europe’s leading clubs.
PHOTO: Shakhtar Donetsk’s Douglas Costa (C) celebrates after scoring with team mates as AS Roma’s Simone Perrotta (R) reacts during their Champions League soccer match at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome February 16, 2011. REUTERS/Tony Gentile