Real Sociedad vs. Shakhtar Donetsk preview: Can either challenge for a knockout place?

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno

The underdogs for knockout stage places in Group A are still extremely strong sides. Can Real Sociedad or Shakhtar Donetsk recover from their offseason losses to mount a challenge to Manchester United and Bayer Leverkusen?

The peril of a club outside Europe's elite doing well domestically and qualifying for Champions League football in the process is that the talent that got them there is so often snapped up by those above them.

That was certainly the case for both Shakhtar Donetsk and Real Sociedad. In the case of the latter their surprise finish in the top four of La Liga was tempered by the loss of midfielder Asier Illarramendi to Real Madrid, while Shakhtar were hit harder by their run to the quarterfinals of last year's competition, losing Henrik Mkhitaryan and Fernandinho to Borussia Dortmund and Manchester City, having already sold Willian to Zenit earlier in the season.

It is a testament though to their work in the transfer window that they have managed to find able replacements, who will play a key role in this intriguing Champions League tie.

Sociedad team news

Starting with the home side, the major loss was coach Phillipe Moisander, who switched to Rennes in France. Sociedad's chose to replace him with his assistant, Jagoba Arrasate, giving the Spanish side a sense of continuity, which has been obvious in the fact that Sociedad have continued to play in the same counter-attacking style that powered them to a run of just three defeats in 28 games.

Illarramendi is also a big loss, and the onus is on former Queens Park Rangers midfielder Esteban Granero to provide some of the creative guile in the centre of midfield, although Arrasate might also elect for a more conservative midfield trio in Europe, which was the case in their qualifying win over Olympique Lyon. Either way, the key contributions will have to come from the attacking trio, particularly from the two wide players Antoine Griezmann and Carlos Vela. The latter scored two cracking goals in the aforementioned qualifier, underpinning the importance his fantastic dribbling and directness gives to the side in a creative sense.

Shakhtar team news

Shakhtar, meanwhile, have too had to replace influential players, and did so by falling back on their tried and trusted formula of recruiting from Brazil. The arrivals of Bernard, Fred, Facundo Ferreyra, Fernando and Wellington Nem haven't had a wholesale impact on the starting XI, however, as Lucescu has somewhat surprisingly chosen to play league matches with an attacking trio of Douglas Costa, Alex Teixeira and Taison. That said, it's possible he's resting his bigger names, prioritising European competition over the Ukrainian title that they have for the last four consecutive years.

It's a very similar 4-2-3-1 to the one that stunned Chelsea last season: full of pace and trickery, and dangerous at transitions. While Bernard and Fred will likely capture the attention, the threat of Darijo Srna overlapping from right-back cannot be overlooked -- he's an excellent attacking full-back whose relative obscurity is a great shame.

Shakhtar's poor form away from home in Europe -- they've only two of their last eight away from the Donbass Arena - makes Sociedad favorites, but this should be a close tie between two of European's intriguing, up-and-coming clubs.

Projected line-ups

Real Sociedad (4-3-3): Claudio Bravo, Alberto De La Bella, Iñigo Martínez, Ion Ansotegi, Dani Estrada, Xabi Prieto, David Zurutuza, Esteban Granero, Carlos Vela, Antoine Griezmann, Haris Seferović

Shakhtar Donetsk (4-2-3-1): Andriy Pyatov, Darijo Srna, Oleksandr Kucher, Yaroslav Rakitskiy, Ismaily, Tomáš Hübschman, Taras Stepanenko, Bernard, Fred, Alex Teixeira, Luiz Adriano

Shakhtarsociedadlineups_medium

Arrasate has lots of midfield options at his disposal, and could also elect to start Ruben Pardo or Markel Bergara if he desires. It's a similar situation for Lucescu, who might hand a Champions League debut to Wellington Nem or Fernando, the latter being the more defensive option.

Key match-up

It's hard to go past the intriguing clash on Shakhtar's right/Sociedad's left, where Carlos Vela and Darijo Srna will come into direct combat. The latter likes to get forward and provide width, but is an intelligent player and will be wary of leaving too much space in behind for the explosive Vela. However, Lucescu might feel he can push Sociedad's most dangerous attacking weapon into deep positions by encouraging Srna to get forward, and thus nullifying their key creative threat. Keep a close eye on this battle.

Prediction

Shakhtar delighted last season with their high tempo attacking style, but they've had to make a lot of changes to their squad over the summer and aren't in the best form domestically - their incredible 30+ game unbeaten run recently came to an end, a reflection perhaps of the changes that have been forced upon them. If this was last year's Shakhtar, they would be clear favorites - but they aren't, so this tie is much closer than it appears. 1-1 draw.

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