On Wednesday, Shakhtar Donetsk and Borussia Dortmund should end up playing the closest thing to a track meet in Champions League history.
Football hipsters and non-hipster nerds alike will enjoy watching their two favorite teams face off on Wednesday, but will ultimately weep in two days when they realize that one of them has to be eliminated. Borussia Dortmund and Shakhtar Donetsk, two of the most entertaining teams in the world, with gobs of the best players on earth that you've never heard of, face off in Ukraine. Watch it if you feel that Real Madrid vs. Manchester United is "too mainstream".
In all seriousness, even though this is the second biggest game of the day, it'll be an excellent game and no one will want to draw the winner in the quarterfinals. The high-tempo game that both teams like to play and their general unwillingness to play at a different speed should turn this match into a track meet. While Mircea Lucescu and Jürgen Klopp are certainly proficient tacticians, expect this match to be settled by individual pieces of brilliance (or lack thereof) rather than tactics.
Shakhtar no longer have Willian, their playmaking wide player who left for Anzhi in the winter transfer window, but they've done well to replace him by bringing in Taison from Metalist Kharkiv. The rest of their squad is intact, and there will be increased weight on the shoulders of Fernandinho, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alex Teixeira now that Willian is no longer with the team. The Ukranian champions are also coming off a winter break, but it's pointless to speculate about how they might be affected. They could look rusty, or they could look rested.
Dortmund had won four games in a row, culminating in a 3-2 away to Bayer Leverkusen two weeks ago, but their winning streak came to an end last weekend with a loss to Hamburg SV, in which Robert Lewandowski was sent off.
The great thing about winter breaks is that they allow your injured players to rest up. Shakhtar are without major injury concerns, though they did catch a couple of tough breaks. Ilsinho has a knee injury and will not play, while Tomas Hübschman has chicken pox and is unlikely to start. Otherwise, they have a clean bill of health.
Dortmund's injury concerns are much more numerous. Ilkay Gündogan, Patrick Owomoyela and Kevin Grosskreutz did not travel with the team. Marcel Schmelzer has been ill recently and will have to pass a fitness test to start the match. Neven Subotic, who had been out injured, is back to full fitness and is expected to start the match.
Projected lineups (left to right)
Shakhtar Donetsk (4-2-3-1): Andriy Pyatov; Ravzan Rat, Yaroslav Rakitskiy, Dmytro Chygrynskiy, Darijo Srna; Taras Stepanenko, Fernandinho; Taison, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Alex Teixeira; Luiz Adriano
Borussia Dortmund (4-2-3-1): Roman Weidenfeller; Marcel Schmelzer, Mats Hummels, Neven Subotic, Lukasz Piszczek; Nuri Sahin, Sebastian Kehl; Marco Reus, Mario Götze, Jakub Blaszczykowski; Robert Lewandowski
Fernandinho vs. Whoever starts in midfield for Dortmund: With Ilkay Gündogan at home, Dortmund will have to start a midfielder that is inferior to him in some, if not multiple ways. Sven Bender isn't much of a passer and Moritz Leitner is weak defensively, so their best option might be Nuri Sahin. Klopp could drop veteran Sebastian Kehl and play his most athletic midfielder, Bender, next to his lightest, Leitner, but is unlikely to want to drop Kehl. With Kehl's solid veteran presence and positioning comes a limited range of both passing and motion, and Sahin's the best compliment to him available.
He'll have a lot of fun trying to track the runs of Fernandinho, who is an alien. He plays in Shakhtar's double pivot, but makes runs forward with such pace, directness and ferocity that he's very often in on counter-attacking goals that start with him making a run from his own penalty area. It'll be up to Sahin -- or perhaps Leitner or Bender -- to track him.
Taison vs. The pressure, oh god, the pressure: Taison is a very good player, but he is not Willian. While Willian is a world class attacking midfield player who could play for any team in the world, Taison is simply a very solid player who should eventually fill in as a creative winger in an adequate way. There's going to be a lot of pressure on him in his Shakhtar debut -- whether he starts or comes off the bench -- and hopefully he copes with it well. He's won the Copa Libertadores, so he's not completely without big-game experience, but this will be the biggest stage he's ever played on.
The beep test vs. everyone in this game: Seriously, these guys are going to break the beep test and have it begging for mercy. Speed on speed on speed on speed.
This tie won't be over on Wednesday, no matter what. Even if Dortmund lose by multiple goals and fail to get an away goal, they can't be counted out heading home. They should be able to grab an away goal, however, but I like Shakhtar to win the match. A 2-1 Shakhtar win should satisfy both sides and set up a brilliant return leg.