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Lucescu transcends Subbuteo at Shakhtar

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Phil Minshull | 22:13 UK time, Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Shakhtar Donetsk are on the verge of making their own little bit of history and, into the bargain, making life probably a little more uncomfortable for Premier League leaders Arsenal.

A point at home to Portuguese side Braga on Wednesday will ensure that the Ukrainian team finish top of their group and qualify for the Champions League last 16 for the first time.

The Gunners, assuming Arsene Wenger's men fulfil expectations and get three points at home to a struggling Partizan Belgrade outfit that have not won in the Champions League so far and only scored one goal, will then have to settle for second place.

Arsenal then face the possibility of facing a team such as Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid or even reigning champions Inter Milan in the knockout stages.

Just in case you are an optimistic Arsenal fan, I have provided a link so that you can look at the permutations for what is required should Braga upset the odds and get their fourth consecutive win.

However, Donetsk in December, despite the relative comforts of Shakhtar's recently opened Donbass Arena, can still be very inhospitable to visitors.

The hosts have also yet to lose a game there this season, either in domestic or continental competition, so I will be putting my money on Shakhtar not to trip up over their own feet.

The reigning Ukrainian champions started their season with a 7-1 thrashing of Tavriya in the local Super Cup and have not looked back. They have dropped only four points in their 19 games before the winter break started at the end of November.

Shakhtar's only domestic loss was a rather surprising 1-0 defeat at Obolon Kyiv in September but they are still a whopping 12 points clear of perennial rivals Dynamo Kiev.

With a strange coincidence, Shakhtar finished off this stage of the season with a 4-0 win over a Ukrainian mid-table side called Arsenal, who are not related to their London namesakes.

Eduardo will be looking to join his former team Arsenal in the knockour stages of the Champions League: Pic AP

Nevertheless, at the start of the group stages, Wenger must have fancied his team to lead the way in Group H, despite the Ukrainian side's decent credentials, which includes a Uefa Cup success two seasons ago.

After all, they crashed out of last season's Champions League before even reaching the group stages, suffering a costly - in both financial and egotistical terms - defeat to the modest Romanian side Timisoara.

"We failed to progress to the Champions League group stage last season but showed our strong character by winning the Ukrainian Premier League, six points clear of Dynamo Kiev, so we are heading the right way," said the club's veteran Romanian coach Mircea Lucescu back in July.

A potentially demoralising 5-1 defeat at the Emirates Stadium in October also made Arsenal the favourites to top the group. However, Shakhtar again showed their character, a regularly used word in Lucescu's vocabulary, by bouncing back to beat the Gunners 2-1 at home two weeks later and have not faltered since.

Part of the reason for Shakhtar's success this season clearly stems from the fact that the Miners, as they are known locally, have been able to hang onto their top players, such as the Uefa Cup final scorers Jadson and Luiz Adriano, who in my opinion are hugely underrated.

Lucescu has also augmented his squad wisely with the likes of the speedy, right winger Douglas Costa and the Ukrainian international defender Dymtro Chygrynskiy, the latter after an unhappy season at Barcelona.

Another reason for Shakhtar's success may be Lucescu's loyalty. He has been with the club since 2004, despite various offers from elsewhere, including the chance to coach the Ukrainian team in the build-up to the Euro 2012 finals, which are being held jointly by Ukraine and Poland.

The club and its players now exude stability as well as confidence.

Despite their relatively unsuccessful Champions League campaigns, winning four league titles in the last six years as well as becoming only the second Ukrainian club to win a European trophy has meant Lucescu has retained the favour of the club owner, the oligarch and billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, who is estimated to be Ukraine's richest man.

If you think I am exaggerating Lucescu's qualities, well, I will admit it, I do have a soft spot for him.

He was in the Romanian team that played England at the 1970 World Cup, the very first World Cup game that I can remember watching. I got up early to watch the highlights of England's 1-0 win before going to school. David Coleman was coming through on a grainy signal from Mexico. It all seemed so exciting and exotic.

I also had Lucescu among my rather incomplete Panini sticker collection and, for reasons which have completely evaded me but which may also have had something to do with Lucescu, I got a Subbuteo team in Romanian colours shortly after the World Cup came to an end.

I was not someone indulging in some pre-pubescent propaganda for the Ceausescu regime but, for a European player and from what little I saw via the satellite, Lucescu seemed to have a slight touch of Brazilian magic about him.

Coach Mircea Lucescu is forming a team which has a Brazilian core to it. Pic: Getty


He is usually listed as a striker but was more of a gifted and intelligent attacking midfielder by contemporary analysis - a little like Kaka at AC Milan perhaps.

During the second half of his career, in which he won seven Romanian titles at Dynamo Bucharest, he was the foil and provider at both club and country level for Dudu Georgescu, who won the European Golden Shoe in 1975 and 1977.

Lucescu's abilities as a player have since been transferred into his ethos as a coach. His squad now contains six Brazilians - all midfielders or forwards - as well as the Brazil-born but naturalised Croatian ex-Arsenal striker Eduardo.

It might be stretching the analogy a little too far but on their best days there is even a little touch of the classical Brazilian style about Shakhtar as well.

Assuming that Shakhtar do get the required point against Braga, then how far can they go in this season's Champions League?

Ukraine teams, like their counterparts in Russia, have the disadvantage of having their momentum broken by the three-month domestic league winter break and Shakhtar's next match in the Ukraine Premier League is on 5 March.

Such a hiatus between serious games can help if there are injuries or other problems that need addressing but for a team on a roll, as Shaktar are, it can be disruptive. They could easily end up facing a very tricky opponent in the last 16 like Milan and be short of match practice.

However, should Shakhtar get over that hurdle and get back into their stride by the Champions League quarter-finals in March, then who knows what could happen.

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