Barcelona fans are going to be happy to have drawn Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk in UEFA Champions League's quarterfinals. The feeling is not completely inappropriate. After all, they could have gotten Manchester United.
But Shakhtar is a team that just posted a lopsided victory over Roma, and while the Giallorossi were not a threat to win this competition, the Miners gave the type of convincing performance we saw from none of Chelsea, Manchester United, or even Barcelona. They got three road goals at the Stadio Olimpico and finished with a 6-2 aggregate victory. Couple that with winning their group (over Arsenal) and the distance they've put between themselves and Dynamo Kiev in league, and you see a CV that hints at a much stronger Ukraine representative than we're used seeing. Barcelona fans really shouldn't be that happy.
There's also the eye test, always important. Shakhtar looks the dark horse's part. They have a strong system in place, one where players have defined roles in which they've been allowed to excel, the type of combination that allowed expertise to transcend gaps in talent. They have a sprinkling of world class skills to go with a couple of players who are on the verge of reaching beyond the stature of a plucky Eastern European club.
And they also have naivete. This is their first trip to this point in the competition. It's the first time any team from the Ukraine has been here, and aside from Eduardo and Dmytro Chrygrynskiy, they don't have players who have been in clubs who have had this kind of success. Yet there are still players like Darijo Srna and Razvan Rat - veteran talents who've been overlooked for not playing closer to the Atlantic - who will give the side its grounding. There's also those six Brazilians, plauers any club in the world would like to have: Fernandinho, Jádson, Luiz Adriano, Willian, Douglas Costa, Alex Teixeira. Any then there's the coach, Mircea Lucescu, who has been here before, guiding Galatasaray to the 2000-01 quarterfinals.
There, the Lions lost to Real Madrid. Will Barcelona be Lucescu's next Spanish conqueror, or is there something that the Romanian learned from that experience that he can bring to this tie? Even if there is, this Barcelona team is better than the Madrid team Lucescu vanquished in Instabul before succumbing to at the Bernabeu. It's become cliché though still necessary to note, it's not often that you see a team with all of Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Villa, Alves, Puyol and Piqué.
But as we saw against Arsenal, Barcelona is not invincible, and when we compare results against that like opponent, Shakhtar and Barcelona don't seem a continent apart. Both clubs lost in North London. Both teams beat the Gunners at home.
How They Got Here
Barcelona's group was easy. Though they were drawn with Rubin Kazan, the Russians were much weaker than the team that had shocked them a year before. With two draws, Barcelona went through unbeaten, with FC Copenhagen snatching second place.
In the Round of 16, Barcelona lost 2-1 at Arsenal before having fortune shine on them at Camp Nou. Tied 3-3 and on pace to be eliminated, Arsenal's Robin van Persie controversially saw red. Barcelona would go on to win the tie 5-3.
Shakhtar accumulated more points than Barcelona in group stage (15 to 14) despite being in a more difficult quartet, their only loss coming via a 5-1 drubbing by Arsenal. Donetsk would only allow one other goal in the rest of the phase, advancing to face Roma in the Round of 16.
There, three goals in a 13-minute, first leg span at the Stadio Olimpico put the tie away. The Miners took a 3-2 lead back to Donetsk, where they'd ease to their first quarterfinal appearance.
The last time these sides met was the UEFA Super Cup a year-and-a-half ago. Shakhtar was coming off their UEFA Cup victory while Barcelona was celebrating their Champions League title. The match took extra time to settle, with Pedro Rodríguez's 115th minute goal serving as a type of springboard to a breakout season for the former Pedrito.
We saw the 4-2-3-1 slow down Spain this summer. Barcelona's basically a better version of the Spanish national team, but employing a system that slowed La Roja this summer, can Shakhtar succeed where the Netherlands and Germany failed?
Of course they can, though over 180 (as opposed to 90) minutes, they're unlikely to replicate the 1-0 losses the Oranje and Nationalmannschaft achieved. But Shakhtar is good enough to where an injury, red card, or bad call at the right time could sway this tie. They're just as dangerous as Arsenal, particularly with the second leg in Donetsk.
April 6: Barcelona vs. Shakhtar, Camp Nou, Barcelona
April 12: Shakhtar vs. Barcelona, Donbass Arena, Donetsk