The Champions League draw is in and many cules are no doubt breathing sighs of relief: Shakhtar Donetsk came out of the hopper instead of a tougher opponent. Except that Shakhtar is a tougher opponent and the route to Wembley is a potential minefield for everyone at this stage. And, indeed, overlooking the Ukrainian outfit and focusing on potential semi-final dates with Real Madrid (who face Spurs) would be folly in the extreme.
This set of matches, which take place April 6 and 12, gives us the opportunity to look forward and back, as I love to do. We’re heading to Donetsk where we will meet Dmytro Chygrynskiy for the first time since we returned him to that club. For those of you with short memories, we purchased Dima two summers ago for €25m in what amounts to a bungled transfer. He was cup-tied, having played in Shakhtar’s Champions League qualifier a few days before the transfer and subsequently failed to make many appearances in either La Liga or the Copa del Rey, amassing a total of 14 appearances.
We faced off against Dima in the UEFA Super Cup the day before he officially transferred. The rest of Shakhtar was there too, of course, but most fans were concentrated on the long-haired giant in defence. That was the middle of the sextuple run and Barça was going through a transition period, having purchased Zlatan Ibrahimovic and discarded Samuel Eto’o. Dima was regarded with some apprehension because of his price tag, but he acquitted himself well that day, neither giving ground nor injuring his future teammates.
When Barça sold Dima back for €15m in an attempt to both recuperate a part of what was considered a failed experiment and generate cash, there were sad, resigned shakes of the head from this particular commentator. It is naturally impossible to know the true state of affairs behind-the-scenes, but if various press reports are to be believed (and in Spain, why would you ever doubt their veracity?), Guardiola was not in favour of sending Chygrynskiy back to Shakhtar, but was overruled by Sandro Rosell in what amounted to a financial decision and, perhaps, a power play on the new president’s part. All that is merely speculation, of course, as is the assertion that Chygrynskiy was heartbroken at having to leave.
Regardless, he’s reunited with manager Mircea Lucescu, a Romanian who has been in charge of Shakhtar since 2004. Lucescu, a former striker, has been successful in several countries, but he seems to have found his home in the Ukraine. Under his guidance, Shakhtar has won the league 4 times (missing only 2006-07), the Ukrainian Cup twice (03-04 and 07-08), the Ukrainian Super Cup 3 times, and the UEFA Cup once (2008-09). That’s a fairly impressive haul for a team whose squad contains almost no players the average fan can name.
There’s Dima, of course, and Darijo Srna … and Eduardo da Silva, Tomas Hubschman, Razvan Rat, Willian, Luiz Adriano, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Andriy Pyatov, to name some of them. They’re no slouches, by any measure, which you know full well because they’re in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. No matter what you think of their CL group (Arsenal, Braga, and Partizan) or their last-16 opponents (Roma), they’re as far as they are because they’re good and deserve both respect and our total focus.
Despite being blown out by Arsenal in London 5-1, they beat them in Donetsk and ended up winning the group with 5 wins and 1 loss. And yes, Group H was weak, but no group is ever easy and no team can ever be overlooked because their route wasn’t as tough as another one. Anyone can win on any given day and forgetting that Shakhtar took the mighty Barcelona to extra time in the UEFA Super Cup would be foolish. If not for Pedro’s strike, we might not be the team of the Sextuple.
And then there’s Guardiola claiming Shakhtar is the best team in the Champions League and that they've lost exactly 0 of their last 53 home matches. That's nothing to scoff at, even if the quality of their opposition in the Ukrainian Premier League isn't up to the standard of the major European leagues. How would they fair on a cold, rainy night in Stoke, after all? Despite their league's winter holiday from November until March, they defeated Roma 6-2 on aggregate, including a 2-3 away win, though they did recently slip to their second league defeat in a 1-0 away loss to Karpaty. They're currently 1st, 9 points up on Dynamo Kiev with 9 matches left to play.
Nothing is ever easy at this stage. Ever. Barça has still to win a Champions League knockout stage away match under Guardiola, so a draw would be about as good as could be expected, though both teams should be going for it given their goal scoring abilities. The one thing, though, is that now we won't face a gauntlet of London-based teams ahead of a Wembley final (had we drawn Chelsea or Tottenham, we might have been able to face off against 3 opponents from that fair city in a row). Instead, we'll go the Ukraine in April, where temperatures fluctuate between 5-13C (41-56F) on average. Not too bad.
And a quick note: Eric Abidal had surgery yesterday (Thursday) for a liver tumour. He is maintaining his privacy, as is his right, but the club published an official post saying the surgery was a success and he could be out of the hospital within a week. Twitter has been filled with the #animsAbidal hashtag and the outpouring of love and best wishes from players and fans across the world has been quite touching. While I hope that he returns to play for us, this is where sports becomes meaningless: the most important thing is for him to be healthy.
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