This should be, on paper, no match at all, which makes it all the more frightening for the Spanish side. Roma and Arsenal earlier this season surely thought similarly about the Ukrainian team, which are hardly Champions’ League heavyweights after all.
Yet it was Mircea Lucescu’s men, playing an attractive and devastatingly potent brand of counter-attacking football, that finished first in the group stages, three points ahead of Arsenal. Their demolition of Roma on an aggregate score of six-to-two further demonstrated just how good their young side is. Underdogs, then, certainly, but Shakhtar Donetsk has shown that their bark and their bite are equally ferocious.
Then again, this is Barcelona. The side that is being lauded as the greatest currently playing, possibly even the greatest ever. Josep Guardiola’s team play football so mesmerizingly and so rarely undermined that it seems otherworldly, as if aliens themselves revealed to Pep a new blueprint for the beautiful game. In the past five years, Barcelona have been to two semifinals and won twice. If Germany is the great tournament side for national teams, then the Blaugrana are surely the club side equivalent.
Like any great side, Barcelona is far more than the sum of their parts, but it does help to have such great individual pieces. Gerard Pique is quickly developing into a world class center-back, if he’s not quite there yet, and his defensive ally Dani Alves is surely one of the greatest right-backs in the world. His zip and clever combination play opens up the entirety of the right flank for the team to exploit. Victor Valdes is perennially underrated, as well, often pulling off point-winning saves to keep out what little of the ball makes it through the rest of the team.
However it’s the front six for Barca that win all the plaudits and hardly need restating. The magician himself, Lionel Messi, seems likely to add to his tally of eight goals and finish perhaps a third consecutive season as Champions’ League top scorer. Individually, the players are in a league of their own, possessing brilliant minds and fantastic touches; collectively, the group functions like a supercomputer, playing the game so quickly that by the time opponents react the ball is already in the back of their net. Barcelona advance about the pitch like smoke, constantly suffocating opponents and to be found seemingly everywhere, always expanding.
Shakhtar conversely play perhaps more directly, relying on pace and precise attacks to get on the score sheet. Luiz Adriano, Eduardo, and Douglas Costa often find each other seamlessly, each as capable of scoring as the next. Against Roma, the three illustrated just how quickly they can tear a defense to shreds. Within twelve minutes, Shakhtar went from losing by one to winning by two. Douglas himself was sensational on the night, scoring one and assisting another to leave Roma in ruins. Their back line, anchored by Captain Darijo Srna, will have a much tougher task on their hands trying to keep out the Barcelona hydra, but they have succeeded in this as well as recently as two years ago.
The teams have a very recent history between them, all of which has caused Guardiola to be very wary of the side. They faced off in the 2009 UEFA Supercup, in which Barca triumphed only after a very late goal from Pedro Martinez. The season before they played each other twice in the group stages, where each side won away. Furthermore, Dmytro Chygrynskiy, now vice-captain of Shakhtar, spent a rather unsuccessful season at the Spanish side. So unsuccessful, in fact, that Barca sold him back to his current club at a ten million Euro loss. Personal revenge will thus certainly be a thread on display come Wednesday.
One thread of many. Shakhtar have taken two scalps already in this European campaign and have nothing to lose in going for a third. Barcelona, on the other hand, would be wildly upset should they go out this early. All the pressure is on Guardiola’s men, and along with the knowledge that the second leg is in Ukraine, Shakhtar will be able to use this to play at ease. After all, losing to Barcelona is no shame- just ask Jose Mourinho.