Thursday 18 January 2018

Shakhtar Donetsk keep spirits up ahead of Bayern test

Shakhtar Donetsk's head coach Mircea Lucescu
Shakhtar Donetsk's head coach Mircea Lucescu

Ian Hawkey

Mircea Lucescu, the wise, long-serving coach of Shakhtar Donetsk, took stock as he prepared to board the umpteenth flight of his club's long mid-season tour.

His squad were leaving Spain, their third stop after Brazil and Croatia. After nearly a month chasing winter sunshine, he felt pleased about one thing.

"No serious injuries," reported Lucescu as he looked forward to Shakhtar's return to competitive action with the visit of Bayern Munich in the Champions League tomorrow.

Lucescu would have been forgiven for conducting a quick headcount, all the same, as his players filed through passport control. The last time Shakhtar went away on a long training trip, half a dozen squad members refused to go back to Ukraine. They feared for their safety, they said, although Lucescu suspected one or two may have been angling for transfers.

That was last July, shortly after Malaysian Airlines flight 17 was shot down in the Donbass region - of which Donetsk is the principal city - reportedly by pro-Russian separatists engaged in a bloody struggle for control of the area.

The refusenik footballers, all South American, were eventually persuaded to stick with their employer, who clarified they would not be going home to Donetsk, but living a gipsy existence several hundred miles away, for the foreseeable future.

CHILLING

Shakhtar have not played a 'home' match since last May, when they won 3-1 against Illichivets Mariupol, on the way to their ninth Ukrainian Premier League title - their fifth on the trot.

Their players, many of them figureheads for the most consistently successful eastern European club of the last decade, have since joined the tens of thousands displaced by the armed conflict in Ukraine.

Shakhtar will not be going home in a hurry. They have already agreed to extend their hire of the main stadium in Lviv, 800 miles from embattled Donetsk, until the end of 2015. Even if the shelling of Donetsk ceases, their once-gleaming Donbass Arena will need to complete its repairs. Bombing has damaged its structure.

Chilling footage, captured on a stadium security camera last October, of the sound of artillery and then a vast glass panel falling within two metres of a small child walking around the perimeter became a symbol of the arbitrary perils of the conflict.

The Donbass Arena is only just over five years old. It was a monument to 21st century Ukrainian strength and purpose, a centrepiece of Euro 2012, and a spectacular theatre for the often thrilling football played by Shakhtar and cultivated by Lucescu, the 69-year-old Romanian who has been in charge for 10 seasons.

The Donbass was also a place fine footballers came to from far away to work.

If the patronage of the billionaire industrialist Rinat Akhmetov was the key driver of Shakhtar's upward mobility, so was the unique relationship built up by the club with Brazil.

Not the least of Lucescu's achievements has been to turn Donetsk, coal-mining country, into a preferred destination for gifted cariocas and paulistas.

Fernandinho, now of Manchester City, soared at Shakhtar. So did Chelsea's Willian. But that supply line may soon dry up.

Last month, Bernard, the young Brazil winger, said he would no longer recommend his compatriots to join him and the likes of Douglas Costa, Luiz Adriano and Alex Texeira.

Meanwhile, Bayern Munich warmed up for tomorrow's match by thrashing hapless Hamburg 8-0, with Thomas Mueller, Mario Goetze and Arjen Robben each scoring twice.

Bas Dost scored four as Wolfsburg secured a remarkable 5-4 away win at Bayer Leverkusen.

Paris Saint-Germain endured troubled preparation for their visit of Chelsea as they let slip a two-goal lead to draw 2-2 at home to Caen. PSG finished the match with only nine men due to injuries, which make five of their players, including Johan Cabaye, likely to miss out tomorrow.

Real Madrid continued to attract the ire of their supporters as Gareth Bale was again booed during their 2-0 victory over Deportivo La Coruna.

Isco and Karim Benzema scored in either half but home supporters were far from happy, while Cristiano Ronaldo failed to score for a third consecutive game - his worst club run in 18 months.

Barcelona kept pace with the leaders yesterday, with Lionel Messi scoring a hat-trick as Levante were beaten 5-0 at the Nou Camp.

Messi completed his 23rd La Liga hat-trick from the penalty spot in the 65th minute, giving him a share of the record set by Real's Ronaldo earlier this season.

Meanwhile in Italy, Napoli coach Rafa Benitez was left feeling frustrated after his side's Serie A title ambitions nosedived with a 3-1 defeat at Palermo on Saturday.

Earlier, Senegalese striker Khouma Babacar scored twice and set up another goal as Fiorentina beat Sassuolo 3-1 to notch their sixth away win of the season. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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