Mircea Lucescu

Shakhtar Donetsk coach reaches milestone as his team ties United

Leave a comment

The 1-1 draw between Shakhtar Donetsk and Manchester United on Wednesday in the Champions League may have compounded the pressure on David Moyes, but for the man on the other bench, it was another feather in the cap of a long, successful career.

Mircea Lucescu became Shakhtar’s longest-serving manager on Monday in his ninth full season with the club, surpassing Oleg Oshenkov, who won the club’s first two major titles. Under Oshenkov, Shakhtar took the USSR Cup in 1961 and 1962, but the 2012-13 Ukrainian Premier League champions only won six trophies between then and Lucescu’s first year.

Right from the start, the Romanian manager proved to be a winner. In all, he has won seven league titles, five Ukrainian Cups and Super Cups and the 2009 UEFA Cup. Now 68, Lucescu had several other opportunities last summer when his Shakhtar contract was close to expiring, but he did not hesitate to put pen to paper on an extension.

After doing so, he gave an interview to Romanian outlet Adevărul, in which he explained his longevity and a bit of his coaching philosophy (translated from Romanian):

Contracts mean absolutely nothing. I’m valuable as long as the my performance is satisfactory. When it’s not, we’ll shake hands, and I’ll look after my own business. …

I have no use for their [players’] legs — only their minds. I value intelligence in the first order, but I know not all of them can be smart, so I try to balance the cumulative effect between games and training. I talk to them about education, attitude, discipline. … And I’m talking about all kinds of education: professional, civil, health, attitude in training.

In the hot seat at Manchester United, Moyes was supposed to provide United with the same kind of longevity and success that Lucescu has found in Donetsk and that Sir Alex Ferguson found at Old Trafford before Moyes arrived. But Lucescu has what Moyes doesn’t, because he is still working through the transition period: an obvious identity to his team.

Lucescu has brought in scores of South Americans to provide the creative thrust, and he recruits Eastern Europeans to keep the defense tight. Shakhtar has 11 Brazilians on the roster, including Luiz Adriano and Croatian international Eduardo da Silva.

The manager’s formula of attack-at-all-costs soccer provided nearly a year where the club did not lose a competitive game, between Champions League losses on Nov. 23, 2011, and Nov. 7, 2012. Shakhtar lost just one game in each of the last two seasons, although it has already lost twice in 2013-14.

However, Lucescu and Shakhtar are off to an unbeaten start to the current Champions League campaign. After defeating Real Sociedad 2-0 in Spain and coming back to tie United at home on Wednesday, Donetsk sits on top of its group. Despite being one of the underrated teams in the competition, it has a chance to repeat its quarterfinal feat of 2011.

Where They Stand: Groups A through D after two rounds of UEFA Champions League

1 Comment

The way UEFA Champions League schedules its group stage, the competition takes a drastic turn after two game. That’s because the third and fourth matches are a home-and-home series, allowing teams to zero-in on an opponent in a way normally reserved for the knockout round.

If you’re gotten off to a slow start, it’s probably because of a difficult schedule, one that will give you an easier opponent in the middle rounds. If you’re off to a fast start, you might be brought down to earth, and if you’ve missed opportunities to pick up points, the home-and-home can leave you regretting your start.

Take, for example, Schalke, who sit first in Group E after yesterday’s action. They’re 2-0-0, lead by three points, but they’ve also yet to face Chelsea. Over the next two rounds, they get the José Mourinho’s team twice, facing the prospect of regressing from their hot start.

[MORE: Where They Stand: Groups E through H after two rounds.]

But the home-and-homes become most interesting when they pair teams fighting for the same spot, and after Wednesday’s action in Groups A through D, each quartet is left with one showdown matchup over the competition’s next two rounds:

  • Group A: Shakhtar Donetsk, tied on points with group-leading Manchester United, are paired with Bayer Leverkusen, one point back but having got their trip to Old Trafford out-of-the-way. These teams were expected to compete for second behind the Red Devils, but if either team sweeps this series, they’ll have a chance of stealing first place from the favorites.
  • Group B: Copenhagen and Galatasaray sit third and fourth, but if one team can claim four or six points, they’ll volunteer to challenge Juventus for the spot behind Real Madrid. Juve, having only claimed two points thus far, will mull their regrets while matched with los Blancos.
  • Group C: Olympiacos and Benfica have each beaten Anderlecht and lost the Paris Saint-Germain, and while form has distinguished their performances, that’s all style points. Over rounds three and four, we’ll see if one of them can take control of the race for the group’s other knockout round spot.
  • Group D: Manchester City are heavily favored with advance with group-leading Bayern Munich, but two years ago, it was CSKA Moscow that found a way into the knockout round. Manchester City has never advanced beyond group stage.

[MORE: Wednesday roundup: Winners and highlights from Wednesday’s action.]

[MORE: Full-time snapshot: The numbers after Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League matches.]

Here’s where Groups A through D stand after Wednesday’s Champions League action:

* – To each of these standings we’ve added a column labeled +/-: a crude attempt to track how many points a team has dropped at home (minus) or picked up on the road (plus). It’s a very crude attempt to gauge the extent to which teams are holding serve.

Group A
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS +/-*
Manchester United 2 1 1 0 5 3 2 1-0-0 0-1-0 4 +1
Shakhtar Donetsk 2 1 1 0 3 1 2 0-0-1 1-0-0 4 +1
Bayer Leverkusen 2 1 0 1 4 5 -1 1-0-0 0-1-0 3 +0
Real Sociedad 2 0 0 2 1 4 -3 0-0-1 0-0-1 0 -3

WIth a home-and-home with Real Sociedad up next, Manchester United are in good position. They’ve held serve at home, and they’ve taken a point in Donetsk that the rest of the group’s unlikely to replicable. David Moyes is off to a strong start to his first Champions League.

Look over at the +/- column and you can see why Shakhtar can afford to split their upcoming games with Bayer. The Ukrainian champions have already won on the road, and although they technically dropped points today against United, Bayer’s likely to do the same. If Shakhtar and Leverkusen split their teams’ upcoming series, Mircea Lucescu will have preserved his team’s advantage.

[MORE: Manchester United makes Danny Welbeck’s early opener hold up.]

Group B
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS +/-*
Real Madrid 2 2 0 0 10 1 9 1-0-0 1-0-0 6 +3
Juventus 2 0 2 0 3 3 0 0-1-0 0-1-0 2 -1
Copenhagen 2 0 1 1 1 5 -4 0-1-0 0-0-1 1 -2
Galatasaray 2 0 0 2 1 5 -4 0-0-1 0-0-1 0 -2

Two ties in the group’s four games have helped Real Madrid extend their lead. Even they only take one point from Juventus in the next two round, they’ll still be first come round five. If, on the other hand, they claim four points, they’ll be able to click it into cruise.

At the other end of the group, Copenhagen and Galatasaray will either cancel each other out or identify a contender. Given Real will likely do some damage to Juve, four points for either team could see them pull even with (or, leapfrog) the Italian champions. And as we discussed in today’s reaction, if it’s Galatasaray that takes advantage Copenhagen, Juventus may be destined for a must-win in Istanbul to close out group stage.

[MORE: Home draw should raise concerns for Juventus.]

Group C
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS +/-*
Paris Saint-Germain 2 2 0 0 7 1 6 1-0-0 1-0-0 6 +3
Olympiacos 2 1 0 1 4 4 0 0-0-1 1-0-0 3 +0
Benfica 2 1 0 1 2 3 -1 1-0-0 0-0-1 3 +0
Anderlecht 2 0 0 2 0 5 -5 0-0-1 0-0-1 0 -3

PSG’s not only three points up on the pack. They’ve put up huge results against their closest competition, and their upcoming home-and-home will be against the quartet’s cellar dwellers. Even if they’re not on 12 points at this time next month, they’ve accumulated some serious tiebreaker mojo. They may be in a better position than Real Madrid, despite a smaller lead.

As for the chasers, Olympiacos and Benfica will have a chance to step forward as the group’s number two. The Greek champions have looked the more impressive side, but at the far right, you see that both teams are treading water.

Group D
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS +/-*
Bayern Munich 2 2 0 0 6 1 5 1-0-0 1-0-0 6 +3
Manchester City 2 1 0 1 4 3 1 0-0-1 1-0-0 3 +0
CSKA Moscow 2 1 0 1 3 5 -2 1-0-0 0-0-1 3 +0
Viktoria Plzen 2 0 0 2 2 6 -4 0-0-1 0-0-1 0 -3

Is it really so far-fetched that Manchester City loses in Russia in three weeks? Long, unfamiliar trip. Team with a recent history of Champions League failures. An inconsistency born of their coaching change. Despite a convincing win in Plzen two weeks ago, City may yet become their former selves.

After Bayern takes care of business against Viktoria, City and CSKA be left to fight for second place, and while the Sky Blues will be favored to claim it, they’ve already dropped points at home. CSKA has not. The main reason for that is schedule (Bayern doesn’t visit Russia until round five), but as of now, there’s nothing that separates the English giants from Russia’s champions.

[MORE: Bayern brilliance, Joe Hart follies see Manchester City fall, 3-1.]

Borussia Dortmund cruise into Champions League’s final eight, eliminate Shakhtar Donetsk

Leave a comment

In some ways, the match seemed the same as the one Borussia Dortmund and Shakhtar Donetsk played out three weeks ago, a game that ended tied, 2-2. Dortmund was again exerting control, but whereas last month’s match in Donetsek saw a quick Shakhtar side threaten BVB in transition, the German champions had an easy go of it on Tuesday. First half goals from Felipe Santana and Mario Götze had the Germans up two at half and when  Jakub “Kuba” Blaszczykowski scored early in the second, Dortmund had their margin of victory. Making surprisingly easy work of a talented Shakhtar team, Dortmund moves into the final eight, winning on aggregate 5-2.

Most of us who had been following this Shakhtar team expected more, especially with Taison having capably replaced the departed Willian. But Mircea Lucescu’s side lacked the verve they showed in Ukraine. Before settling in after their third goal, Dortmund had heavy advantages in possession, shots, shots are target — the crude measures we use to describe the match’s tenor.

Whereas Shakhtar was able to use their counterattacking game to threaten BVB three weeks ago, today they were muted. This played out as your typical big league titan against a mid-sized league’s aspirant. Donetsk was never in the game.

It took Dortmund 31 minutes to open their account, with Santana — starting for Mats Hummels — heading a near post corner above the post-guarding defender to put BVB up 3-2. Six minutes later, a Robert Lewandwski cross was redirected inside Andriy Pyatov’s right post by Götze, giving Dortmund a 4-2 lead.

Just after halftime, a Götze shot spilled in front of goal gave Blaszczykowskia chance at an easy put back, Dortmund’s 5- 2 lead extinguishing any hope Shakhtar had of upsetting the German champions.

For a team that’s transcending their league, Donetsk’s loss leaves little tangible reward for what’s been a remarkable year. At 18-0-1, Shakhtar’s 13 points up in the Ukrainian Premier League, a circuit that used to be hotly contested between them and Dynamo Kyiv. Now left to gauge themselves against Europe, Shakhtar’s been shown to be significantly behind the continent’s best. It’s not a surprising verdict, but it’s one that leaves the club with little to show for their obvious quality.

For the victors, the decisive result is another sign they’re viable Champions League contenders. While BVB’s recent loss to Bayern was a reminder there’s still progress to be made, not many teams would have hung a three-goal victory on Shakhtar Donetsk. That they did reaffirms the idea they’re among UEFA’s best.

Some may see this result as reason to dream of an all-German final. Until BVB proves vulnerable in Champions League, there so reason that dream can’t come true.

Danger match for Chelsea in Ukraine – UEFA Champions League Group E preview

Leave a comment

Shakhtar Donetsk caught a few eyes last match day with a draw in Turin, but coming short of a historic win over Juventus, the Ukrainian champions remaining Overlooked and Underloved ®. On Tuesday, Shakhtar get another chance to transcend their stature as plucky champions from a middle-ground league. With the competition’s holders visiting the Donbass Arena, Shakhtar have an opportunity to score one of the most important wins in their club’s history, and upset that wouldn’t be as most suspect.

That result would turn Group E on its ear. Chelsea and Juventus were picked by most to come out of this group, but if Shakhtar can fulfill their promise and get a key three points, they’ll have done most of the work needed to make the knockout round. In the process, they’ll have also pushed Chelsea or Juventus to the edge of Europa League.

Now, all they have to do is pull it off.

Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine) vs. Chelsea (England)

Donbass Arena, Donetsk, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

We’ve periodically updated you on the farce that Shakhtar’s made of the Ukrainian season. Normally the Premier League comes down to the two derbies between Shakhtar and Dynamo Kyiv, but not this year. Twelve matches into the season, Shakhtar is perfect, has a 12-point lead and a +32 goal difference. They’ve lapped the field.

No player embodies that rise like Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The 23-year-old Armenian scored 13 goals in his two previous Premier League seasons. This year, he’s scored 14 times in 12 games, adding two more in Champions League. While an evolving role within Mircea Lucescu’s setup has meant more chances for Mkhitaryan, this Messi-esque goal rate has come out of nowhere.

Replicating that success against Chelsea is a big ask, but as Skahktar showed last round at Juventus, they’re capable of competing in this group. After taking a point in Turin, the Ukranian champions have carved a route into the next round, provided they stay on it. Failing to get a result against Chelsea wouldn’t sidetrack that effort, but it would leave Shakhtar open to being pushed aside if Juventus beat the Blues in November.

For Chelsea’s part, they’re coming in after a great performance at White Hart Lane, but there are a lot of circumstances conspiring against them. If the Blues weren’t playing in the Club World Cup, the trip to Donetsk would be their longest of the season. They’ve only had two days rest, much of their squad has just come back from international duty, and they have a major league match with Manchester United this weekend.

Even with some squad rotation, Chelsea will be the more talented side on Tuesday. Thanks to that superior personnel and the benefits of their formation, they’ll have fewer troubles with Shakhtar’s style than Juventus did. Still, this is setting up less like match Chelsea will win than one which they’ll try to survive.

From Shakhtar head coach Mircea Lucescu:

” I don’t want to talk a lot about their game on Saturday, because I think that at the moment we are stronger than Tottenham.”

Author’s note: He’s probably right.

From Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo:

“I remember Mircea Lucescu’s work in Italy very well. All his teams stuck to the same philosophy – they always try to play possession football. You can see how Shakhtar pass the ball. You can see the structure of the team. They are very good tactically and they have a lot of quick players.”

UEFA preview

More previews: Group E Group F Group G Group H

Nordsjaelland (Denmark) vs. Juventus (Italy)

Parken, Copenhagen, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

Juventus has only lost once since the beginning of last season (May’s Coppa Italia final to Napoli), but the realities of the three-point win leave the Old Lady in need of points. After draws with Chelsea and Shakhtar, Juventus is in third place, leaving them with little margin for error in Tuesday’s match at Parken. Anything but a win will be points dropped in a race where they’ve already been drawn at home by the team most likely to take a top two spot from them.

Though Nordsjaelland’s destined to finish last in this group, they’re no pushovers. They’ve been better than their -6 goal difference indicates, Given the pace at which Juventus plays, it’s not difficult to imagine the Danish champions snatching a point, particularly if they play for it.

In both of their Champions League games, Juventus started slowly, fallen behind, and had to comeback to salvage draws. In this weekend’s big match against Napoli, they didn’t break through until making late-match adjustments. If they’re similarly slow coming into this match, Nordsjaelland could hold on for their first Champions League point. However, if Juventus is intent from the opening kickoff, they could replicate Chelsea’s result.

From Nordsjaelland head coach Kasper Hjulmand:

“The team is the star. Andrea Pirlo is the key, though, as his distribution is second to none. He is a joy to watch – at least when you are not up against him. I am not the first coach to try to find a way to close Pirlo down. It is an almost impossible task.”

Author’s note: It’s almost as if these coaches don’t have access to film of Juventus’s visit to Chelsea. Nobody saw that and wants to emulate what Roberto Di Matteo had Oscar do?

From Juventus assistant Angelo Alessio:

“I have plenty of experience and a good feeling, so I am not worried that Antonio Conte is not here for this match … Conte decides who plays depending on the tactical outlay and the opponents we face.”

UEFA preview

More previews: Group E Group F Group G Group H