Michael Steele - Getty Images
Tuesday marks a massive step up in competition for Shakhtar Donetsk and Henrik Mkhitaryan. Expect them to be ready, and expect Mkhitaryan to perform.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan has 15 goals in the Ukranian Premier League and UEFA Champions League, and it is the 2nd of October. He has scored those goals in just 931 minutes of game time, meaning he scores a goal just about every 62 minutes. He's not a striker. Just 10 months ago, he was a holding midfielder.
In January of 2012, Shakhtar Donetsk sold Jadson, one of the most entertaining and technically gifted players to ever play for their club. While there were considerations involved in the transfer other than the fee, the transfer fee that Shakhtar received was just €4 million.
Among those other considerations: Jadson wanted to go home. He's 28-years-old, and the window was closing for Shakhtar to make money on him. Shakhtar had a talented young Ukranian player named Taras Stepanenko in the pipeline, and the Ukranian Premier League has foreign player rules.
These reasons, by themselves, justify the sale of the extremely talented and popular Jadson, but the biggest reason for his sale might have had to do with Mkhitaryan.
The personnel changes that Shakhtar began to make last October seem to indicate that manager Mircea Lucescu had some idea that his team's future did not lie with Jadson, who for all of his spectacular skills, is lacking in athleticism and versatility. They also seem to indicate that Lucescu, who used Mkhitaryan as a holding midfielder to start last season, knew that it wasn't the Armenian's best position.
It would have been hard to blame Lucescu if he made the decision to throw Stepanenko into Shakhtar's pivot while holding onto Jadson and relegating Mkhitaryan to super sub duty. His performances in the middle were shaky in last year's Champions League, as Shakhtar failed to win their first five group stage games. He was benched on the third matchday of the Champions League group stage as Lucescu attempted to rescue his team's campaign by shaking things up, but his tactical changes in Champions League play were ultimately unsuccessful.
The transition to life after Jadson came following a late October home defeat to Metalist Kharkiv, in which Jadson was substituted. He sat out Shakhtar's next three games before their local derby against Metalurg Donetsk. Jadson's last start came in that game, along with a turning point in Mkhitaryan's career. The score was 0-0 after halftime, and Lucescu made two early second half substitutions, bringing Alex Texeira and Fernandinho on for Dentinho and Jadson. That moved Mkhitaryan up the pitch and made him into the team's primary creative outlet, which ultimately produced the winning goal.
Starting at 1:58 in the video below, Mkhitaryan (No. 22) receives the ball in midfield, starts his side's attack, makes a brilliant surging run into the 18-yard box, and draws a penalty. Luiz Adriano converted, and Shakhtar went on to win the match 2-0.
Mkhitaryan started Shakhtar's last three league games before the winter break and scored a goal in each of them. Shakhtar did not lose a single league match after the winter break, and Mkhitaryan started in all but one of Shakhtar's league matches during that time period. In their only draw, he scored the equalizer. In his games as a pivot midfielder or substitute, Mkhitaryan tallied two league goals and no assists during the 2011-12 Ukrainian Premier League season. In his games as the starting attacking midfielder, he notched eight goals and four assists.
His success as an attacking midfielder wasn't completely out of left field -- he played that position for local rivals Metalurg, filled in for Jadson there previously when the Brazilian was injured and scored 30 goals in 70 league games in Armenia -- but it was a bit jarring how quickly he became a star player. Even more jarring has been his start to this season, in which he's been one of the most dominant players anywhere in Europe.
The numbers listed at the beginning of this piece speak for themselves: 15 goals, 931 minutes. That tells you how lethal he's been in front of the net without even having to watch him, but the beauty of Mkhitaryan's game is that he's so much more than a goal-scorer. His versatility is why he was tried as a pivot midfielder in the first place, in an attempt to get both him and Jadson on the pitch.
One of the few games that he hasn't scored in this season was Shakhtar's 3-1 win over their primary Ukranian title rivals and fellow Champions League competitors, Dinamo Kiev. Mkhitaryan was the most advanced midfielder for Shakhtar in that match, but had more defensive responsibilities than usual, with their formation looking a bit more like a 4-3-3 than their normal 4-2-3-1. He did an incredible job harassing Miguel Veloso and Denis Garmash and set up Luiz Adriano for the game's clinching goal, in the 81st minute.
That aspect of his game -- pressing high up the pitch and harassing the opposition's midfielders -- is something he's going to be asked to do frequently against Juventus on Tuesday. Andrea Pirlo's technique and vision is still world class, but his athletic ability has waned in recent years, and it's not terribly difficult for top-level players to cut off his line of supply.
Oscar did it for 45 minutes against Juventus on Matchday 1, and it was perhaps the first time Oscar had been asked to man-mark someone in his entire life. Mkhitaryan does that better than just about any attacking midfielder in the world, which is amazing when considering the fact that, and this bears repeating, he scores a goal every 62 minutes.
His versatility and the fact that he can't easily be compared to any one player is probably the most striking thing about Mkhitaryan's rise. When he's playing as a defensive-oriented No. 10, he can harass an opposing deep-lying playmaker like Park Ji-Sung, but help his team keep the ball like Bayern's Toni Kroos. His runs at defenders with the ball at his feet are reminiscent of Clarence Seedorf's younger days. His late runs into the box, composed finishes and often audacious attempts from distance occasionally look just like the ones Steven Gerrard pulled off regularly in his 20s.
Yet, with all of these skills, all of these stats and this excellent body of work, it's still hard to tell exactly how good Mkhitaryan is. Everything he's done up to this point in his career suggests that he's already one of the most underrated players in world football and that he's only going to get better, but his top-level experience is minimal. He's played 13 Champions League games, but only two of those games have come both in the last year and in his current position.
This year, Mkhitaryan has been the focal point of Shakhtar's team since the start of their campaign, and his position is well-defined. He gets to play four games against top-level competition, starting on Tuesday against Juventus. It should be obvious over Shakhtar's next four Champions League matches whether or not he's as good as he's looked in the last calendar year.
On Tuesday, Mkhitaryan will have to stop Pirlo from getting the ball, endure bruising tackles from Arturo Vidal and run at a back line of Georgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli. If he beats them, he has to finish past Gianluigi Buffon.
The Old Lady might be unproven at the Champions League level and Serie A might be down, but these are all first-choice internationals with decades of experience between them. These are top-level players, and the best that Shakhtar has faced since they met Barcelona in the spring of 2011. It's impossible to tell whether or not Mkhitaryan is going to be up to this challenge, but there's no reason to believe that he isn't.
It'll be a letdown if Mkhitaryan and Shakhtar fail to deliver in Turin after their strong start, but they will have another three games to prove that they -- both the player and the club -- belong at this level. Success might not come instantly on Tuesday, but don't be too stunned if Mkhitaryan shows a little bit of Park by cutting off a ball to Pirlo, then a little bit of Seedorf by confidently running at Bonucci, then a little bit of Gerrard by blasting home a goal.