It would have been easy to overlook Shakhtar Donetsk during the draw for the Champions League, but the Ukrainian champions posed a threat to any side in the competition, and are genuine contenders to upset any assumed supremacy from Chelsea and Juventus in Group E.
Their greatest success on the European stage is a UEFA Cup triumph in 2009 (the last year before the competition was revamped as the UEFA Europa League), while they also advanced to the quarter final stage of the Champions League season in 2010/11.
However, their domestic record is more impressive, an incredible unbeaten run stretching back to last year's group stage match against FC Porto which saw them exit the competition. Since then, they've won thirty-one games, drawn two and lost none. Even considering the standard of the Ukrainian league, that is an astonishing feat.
The squad is full of young, technical players, and with the bulk of the squad having been brought to the club as teenagers, they have since developed a strong understanding of their respective roles. "This team has grown together," says manager Mircea Lucescu. "I have 23 and 24-year-olds who have been playing in the same squad since they were 18." By focusing on youth, Lucescu has been able to school his side into his ideals of passing and movement, and gradually they have evolved into one of Europe's most exciting teams.
"I prefer working with younger players because it's very difficult to change the mind of those who are 30 years old," says Lucescu. Having been in charge for six years, Lucescu has been afforded the freedom by oligarch Rinat Akhmetov to build the squad in his own image, having been won over by the Romanian's promise of fluent and attacking football. Lucescu's transfer policy is simple, yet effective: Eastern Europeans do the defending, and Brazilians are entrusted with creative roles. (The Samba connection runs deep at Shakhtar, with eight players in the first team of Brazilian nationality). It wouldn't be unfair to suggest that Shakhtar are a ‘classic' football side, with the defenders defending, the midfields linking defence to attack, and the strikers primarily focusing on attacking.
Attacking is Shakhtar's strong point, with a firm focus on fluid interchange and quick passing. They adopt a hybrid approach, able to both control the ball for long periods and counter attack at pace. The latter is their strength, with the wingers bursting forward from defensive positions to join the front two.
Luiz Adriano leads the line as a mobile striker, and his movement into the channels is very clever, opening up space for the wingers to drive towards goal on their preferred foot (it should be noted that Adriano isn't a false nine: his movement is lateral, rather than vertical).
This worked well for the wingers who were selected for Shakhtar's match against Juventus, Willian and Alex Teixeira. The former, a rumoured target for Chelsea and Liverpool, likes to come deep and collect the ball from left of centre positions, then turn and dribble at defenders. He is Shakhtar's best player, and his directness is crucial to varying Shakhtar's possession play.
On the other flank, Lucescu has more options, but it seems likely Teixeira will retain his right wing position. The Brazilian, like Willian, is similarly vertical, although he tends to receive the ball in positions wider and higher up the flank before cutting inside. Teixeira and Willian share a good understanding and occasionally swap positions.
It seems all but certain that Henrik Mkhitaryan will play through the middle. The Armenian is an intriguing player, originally a holding midfielder, but now playing in a central attacking role after the departure of the immensely talented and popular Jadson. Mkhitaryan is highly mobile and athletic, and plays a role highly similar to that of Chelsea's Oscar - a no.10 able to get into both goal-scoring positions in the box or play a disciplined, marking role. He performed the latter against Andrea Pirlo and neutralised the Italian's influence superbly in their previous Champions League game, but is generally more attacking in domestic competition, where he has fourteen goals goals in twelve appearances. When behind, Shakhtar will often push Mkhitaryan back into the pivot and introduce an extra attacker, and his versatility in the midfield zone is crucial for Lucescu's ability to change tactics throughout a game.
Adriano is also useful as a foil, drawing defenders deeper and creating space for the attacking trio
Lucescu also has other options at his disposal, including Douglas Costa, who can play anywhere across the band of three and poses a similarly direct threat with his sinuous dribbling skills, although Costa is not as disciplined and plays higher up the pitch as a wide forward. Ilsinho is also an option as a versatile right-sided player able to play anywhere down that flank, and Lucescu may opt for him ahead of Alex Texiera to protect that zone. Marko Devic was the central striker on the weekend against Illichivets, and he is a more static target player.'
Bridging the gap between attack and defence is Shakhtar's nominal double pivot, featuring the Czech Republic midfielder Tomas Hubschman and Brazilian Fernandinho. The two sit in midfield, although Hubschman is the more ‘true' holder and generally sits deeper, allowing Fernandinho to shuttle forward to connect the midfield to the attacking four. The Brazilian is also a strong passer, and he was the key man in Shakhtar's strong ball retention against Juventus, touching the ball more than any other player. His long ball distribution is also impressive, and is the player Shakhtar generally look to for quick switches for play.
Beside him is Hubschman, who is a more static player and is adept at breaking up play on transitions, as well as dropping into centre back to cover for any defender who has been drawn out of position. Hubschman also takes up strong positions after long periods of possession, with calm intelligent passing from near the halfway line across the flanks, helping to set the tempo and shift the opposition out of shape.
In the defensive phase, the wingers will drop back and form a bank of four, although this isn't rigid. Although this is useful at transitions, with players already high up the pitch, it does leave space in front of the full backs.
Shakhtar's standard shape. Yellow is defenders, green is the two sitting midfielders, pink is the attackers. Adriano is off screen.
Fortunately for Shakhtar though, they have two very good fullbacks, with Razvan Rat on the left the more aggressive on the two. He frequently moves into the space vacated by Willian and is direct and purposeful with his play. On the opposite side is Darijo Srna, who is best known as a highly aggressive wingback who is constantly bombing forward to create overloads down the flank. However, in recent years and particularly at international level, he's been pushed forward into midfield, and although it seems unlikely that he would play that role for Shakhtar, it has impacted upon his style. He is now much calmer, less explosive, preferring to play composed passes towards the centre of midfield, and against Juventus, the passing combination between him and Olexandr Kucher accounted for the highest count of the game (20). Srna is also very defensively aware, and often moves narrow to account for Fernandinho's shuttling runs as well as ensure a balance with the more aggressive left.
Kucher, alongside home-grown talent Yaroslav Rakitskiy forms Shakhtar's imposing central defence partnership, who generally stay in position and form a midfield ‘square' with the two midfielders. The two have a good understanding and help keep the high line, but are also flexible enough to drop deep and adopt a counter-attacking approach. They prefer to stay in narrow positions rather than get drawn out to the channels, and look vulnerable to crosses from wide positions. When in possession, they play simply, preferring short and accurate distribution to the fullbacks rather than attempting to play long ambitious passes. The goalkeeper, Andriy Pyatov, is similarly direct, often opting to go long to try and engineer counter-attacking moves.
With their boasting of pace and guile in the attacking third, it is little surprise that Shakhtar are very strong on transitions. Against Juventus, they pressed the bianconeri for the first forty-five minutes and prevented them from settling into a rhythm, before dropping deeper into a shape closer resembling 4-4-1-1, allowing Juventus more time on the ball and the freedom to dictate play. Lucescu didn't make a change until the eighty-fourth minute when he introduced Illsinho for Texiera, indicating he was happy with the shape of his side, and a similar shape can probably be expected against Chelsea.
Before Shakhtar's last meeting against London opposition, Jonathon Wilson drew comparisons between Lucescu and Arsenal's Arsene Wenger. "It is in that that [a preference for young players] he is most like Wenger," said Wilson, and it has to be said that Shakhtar's flowing and cohesive moves are evident of the benefits of bringing through a group of youngsters and moulding them in a specific tactical style. However, the similarities don't stop there: Shakhtar possess a similar weakness at defending set pieces and their high risk strategy is similarly vulnerable to well-organised defences and swift counter attacking. Yet this Shakhtar is rightly confident as a result of their unbeaten run. "I built this team and we are not afraid to play anywhere," says Lucescu. He is not lying.