Shakhtar Donetsk are one of Ukraine’s oldest clubs and the second most popular side in the Eastern European country. The club from the Donets Basin were a mid-table outfit during the Soviet Union period and were never able to land much of a blow on their biggest current rivals Dynamo Kyiv. However, the Miners did enjoy a prolific record in the Soviet Cup, winning the trophy on four occasions out of an impressive eight final appearances.
The club’s history changed for good after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but they only managed to win their first Ukrainian Premier League title under Italian coach Nevio Scala in the 2001/02 campaign. The arrival of the coach, who had become famous due to his work at Parma, was probably the beginning of the big time for the Miners.
In 2004, Romanian tactician Mircea Lucescu took over after a four-year spell in Turkey and the coach proceeded to lead Shakhtar to the most successful period in their history. Since Lucescu arrived, Shakhtar have won seven Ukrainian Premier League titles and six Ukrainian Cups. Only in 2009 though did they achieve a breakthrough on the European stage when defeating German side Werder Bremen to win the UEFA Cup.
Lucescu revolutionised Shakhtar’s football. The Romanian, known for his thinking-man’s approach to the game, brought a winning mentality to the club and a new philosophy, with a more technical approach and a focus on attacking football. The 2004/05 season started what would become a trademark at the club: a considerable number of quality Brazilian players. Talents such as Elano, Jadson and Matuzalem marked the start of the “Brazilisation” of Shakhtar’s football.
This season Shakhtar started at full speed once again, however, after the sixth round of Ukrainian Premier League games they had lost twice, against Dnipro and Karpaty Lviv, and clocked up a home draw with Metalist Kharkiv. Shakhtar were quickly plunged into crisis with speculation over whether there could be a recovery. However, Lucescu was not fazed and the team have since recovered to sit second in the table behind Metalist, although a third defeat of the season suffered recently away at lowly Volyn Lutsk showed there is still some work to do.
In truth Shakhtar have probably been knocked off balance by losing midfielders Fernandinho (to Manchester City) and Henrikh Mkhitaryan (to Borussia Dortmund) in the summer. Newcomers, the flamboyant winger Bernard and promising defensive midfielder Fernando, are still going through an adaptation process and will need longer to switch from Brazilian to Ukrainian football.
This season the Donbass Arena club are facing more competition for the title too, with Metalist and Dnipro both genuine contenders. On the other hand, Shakhtar’s fierce rivals Dynamo Kyiv are enduring a miserable campaign and linger in fifth, five points behind Lucescu’s men, despite a summer spending spree. In August, Shakhtar entertained Dynamo at their beautiful Donbass Arena and won with ease, 3-1.
Shakhtar have continued to attract criticism though, with suggestions the side are in decline and Lucescu cannot arrest it. However, the club’s recent upturn in form domestically is ample evidence that the Miners will fight to retain their title this term. What is not clear though is whether that will be enough to topple Metalist, the Ukrainian Premier League’s current leaders, who are still undefeated.