Inside the Opposition

Inside the Opposition: City vs Shakhtar Donetsk (Predicted XI, Players to Watch, Opposition View)

5 goals. 4 goals. 6 goals. 2 goals. 5 goals. That’s 22 in 2 weeks. One every 20 minutes.

No, this isn’t my FIFA Career Mode, where Messi plays in blue and the opposition suddenly becomes incompetent after I turn the difficulty down to amateur when I can’t score.

This is very real football. This is Premier League. This is the Champions League. And this is the almighty Carabao Cup. I don’t care if Liverpool were down to ten men or if Crystal Palace were rubbish – City are on fire, and I love it.

However, the next team to be pushed into the path of the City steamroller aren’t quite what we’re used to. Touching down in Manchester from war-torn Ukraine, Shakhtar Donetsk don’t look like they’re here to make friends. Google their centre-back Yaroslav Rakitskiy if you aren’t sure what I mean by that.

They’re a tough team, full of bulk and Slavic seriousness – so to expect another effortless demolition on City’s part would be slightly naïve. However, despite the fact they beat Napoli in the first group-stage fixture, it remains to be seen if Shakhtar’s tactical organisation is intense enough to match Pep Guardiola’s.

It’s an intriguing fixture – one that I hope to shed some light on for all the blues who don’t really know what to expect on Tuesday. They’ve had an eventful few years to say the least.

The Squad

Shakhtar are unique in that they have, and have had for a long time, a cohort of Brazilian boys playing alongside their home-grown, Ukrainian spine. Think of Fernandinho, who we signed from the club four years ago, or even Elano, who arrived in Manchester from Donetsk ten years ago. Willian has become one of the Premier League’s elite players since joining Chelsea, whereas Douglas Costa, now plying his trade for Juventus, was one of Europe’s most sought-after wingers.

Of the 18 players in their squad to face Napoli, eight were Brazilian. The goal-scorers in that 2-1 win were both South American, one Brazilian and one Argentinian. It’s an interesting technique that Shakhtar operate with – quite literally, a tough Ukrainian defence with an expressive, Latin American attack.

This defence consists of a few ever-presents, such as goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov, who’s been there for 10 years and represented the club over 200 times, and the aforementioned Rakitskiy who is nearing the double century of appearances. However, the back-four will be without perhaps its greatest ever player, Darijo Srna on Tuesday. The Croatian right-back, renowned for his set-piece abilities, is fighting a shocking doping allegation. His presence, not just as a talented player, but also as a captain and club legend with over 300 appearances to his name, will be sorely missed.

Moving into the midfield, and there is still a tinge of Ukrainian efficiency in the shape of Taras Stepanenko, who likes to sit in front of his defence and break up the play. Either side of him, we’re likely to see two Brazilian boys – Bernard, a pacey, tricky and very attack-minded player who stands at just 5 foot 5, and Fred, a very well-rounded central-midfielder.

Up top is where the real South-American magic lies, with the electric Taison always looking to get in behind and the technically brilliant Marlos, an incredibly skilful player who likes to cut inside onto his left foot. Between these two wingers is likely to be Facundo Ferreyra, a player who joined Newcastle on loan, but didn’t play a single minute, after admitting he struggled to deal with the physicality here in England. Nonetheless, he’s been scoring steadily for Shakhtar and got one against Napoli last time out, so don’t be tempted to look past him.

So here is my predicted line-up. With the unfamiliarity that surrounds their squad, I’ve decided to use the Futhead software just this once to help us get to grips with these new players:

View from the opposition

As someone with a lot more background knowledge on Eastern European football, I caught up with Manuel Veth, editor-in-chief of Futbolgrad Network, for more insight into Tuesday’s opponents:

After a brilliant win against Napoli in the first round of fixtures, how optimistic do you think Shakhtar will be? Do you think they’ll go for it or look to frustrate City?

I don’t think they can sit back to be honest. Shakhtar’s head coach Paulo Fonseca plays attacking football and the club’s philosophy is entirely built on the idea that attack is the best form of defence. So, I think they’ll go out with the intention to surprise City, but this tactic has either worked fantastically for them in the past or massively backfired. As a club, they have an enormous amount of confidence and I am sure the players will feel that they can get a result in Manchester.

How are Shakthar doing in the Ukrainian league? And what’s the situation with the stadium and the political unrest at the moment?

Shakhtar are currently first in the Ukrainian Premier League, two points ahead of their eternal rivals Dynamo Kyiv, who have played one game less. Shakhtar have been dominant in the competition and their only defeat came to Dynamo – a match that Shakhtar felt aggrieved to lose.

As for the second part of the question, Shakhtar are now playing their home games in Kharkiv, which is located in the East of the country, 180 miles away from Donetsk. The ongoing conflict between Ukrainian and Russian forces means that Donetsk is sadly a frontline town these days. It is therefore not possible to play football at the Donbass Arena for now, so it seems they will remain in exile for the foreseeable future. That said, the Metalist Stadium in Kharkiv has been a more suitable home for the Miners – especially after local club Metalist went bankrupt.

How much of a miss do you think Darijo Srna will be?

Darijo Srna’s absence will be massive. He is currently fighting the allegation that he has taken an illegal substance and it remains to be seen what will come from the ongoing investigation. This is not the first time Shakhtar have been in the crosshairs of anti-doping agencies though – midfielder Fred was banned last year for failing a doping test. Srna is a big part of this team a leader on and off the pitch, who has remained in the country even after the horrendous conflict forced Shakhtar to abandon Donetsk — a city he has declared to be his hometown. His loss will be felt.

Who are the danger men?

Look out for Brazilian Bernard. The tiny midfield magician has undergone a real renaissance under head coach Paulo Fonseca, so that he now looks like the player many top European clubs tried to sign back in 2013. Other than him, the two wingers Taison and Marlos are also dangerous. Both are very fast and often interchange positions to stretch the oppositions defence.

And what do you think would represent a success for Shakthar in this season’s competition?

Reaching the round of 16 would be a big success for the club. In the past Shakhtar’s biggest problem has always been the transition from the group stage to the playoffs, due to the long winter break in Ukrainian football, which often means the knockout stage comes as the first competitive game of the calendar year for the club. Last year they won all six of their group stage matches only to be knocked out in the round of 32 of the Europa League. They would certainly like to improve on that this season – hopefully in the Champions League after a top 2 group stage finish rather than in the Europa League from finishing third.

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