Sunday, August 20, 2017

Champions League preview: Barcelona v Shakhtar Donetsk

Shakhtar Donetsk face the toughest challenge of their season in a Champions League quarter-final away to Spanish giants Barcelona.

Shakhtar topped Group H with 15 points ahead of Braga and Arsenal and are a commanding 12 points clear in the Ukrainian Premier League.

They have only lost two domestic matches this season, but did come spectacularly unstuck in a 5-1 defeat away to Arsenal in October.

Reportedly overawed by their surroundings then, they cannot afford a repeat of that performance if they are to have any hope of overturning heavy favourites Barca.

To their credit, Shakhtar showed few nerves in the round of 16, beating Italian club Roma 3-2 away from home and 3-0 in the return leg to go through 6-2 on aggregate.

Perhaps crucially, the Ukrainian champions are yet to lose in Europe at the Donbass Arena since the stadium opened in 2009.

Based on that formidable record, Shakhtar’s best hope of making the semi-finals is to escape the Camp Nou with minimal damage, before their impressive home run is put to the ultimate test in the return fixture on April 12.

Well aware of their opponents’ capacity to spring a surprise at home, Barca will have no intention of leaving the tie in the balance after the first leg.

Boasting a host of Spanish World Cup winners – including Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and David Villa – as well as Argentine superstar Lionel Messi, Barca have only been beaten once at home this season.

But they are set to be without both Eric Abidal and club captain Carles Puyol – key defensive absentees that may count in Shakhtar’s favour.

Dangerman Messi was only fit to play the final 38 minutes at El Madrigal on Saturday and did not train with the first team on Monday.

Shakhtar centre-back Dmytro Chygrynskiy, who had an unsuccessful season with Barca last year before returning to Donetsk, is battling to be fit for a chance to prove his critics wrong.

Chygrynskiy and his teammates are among a handful of players that know how it feels to win at the Camp Nou – they recorded a 3-2 group stage victory away to Barca in December 2008.

Pep Guardiola’s side had their revenge eight months later, winning the European Super Cup against Shakhtar 1-0 in Monaco, in the last meeting between the two teams.

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