Despite Sky’s commentary team being remarkably unaware of the strength of Shakhtar Donetsk, Chelsea’s trip to the Donbass Arena was always going to be a difficult task. The Ukrainian side are an excellent and ever-improving unit, full of confidence off the back of a 32 game unbeaten run in all competitions. And while they tend to have problems travelling in Europe, they are formidable at home as all the previous English visitors have found.
The 2-1 final score did a disservice to Shakhtar and, in truth, had the winning margin been three or four goals there could have been no complaints. All over the pitch they bettered the European champions; solid in defence, comfortably winning the midfield battle and with far too much flair and movement in attack for the Chelsea defence to cope with.
Roberto Di Matteo made two changes to his starting eleven from the weekend, with John Terry returning at Gary Cahill’s expense and a tactical switch with Frank Lampard replacing Eden Hazard. The logic behind the change is clear, with Di Matteo obviously being aware of the strength of the opposition and setting up in a more defensive manner.
However, for me it was a strange decision, as although the switch makes the team more defensive on paper it does not necessarily do so in practice. Ramires has been Chelsea’s most effective central midfielder since his reintroduction to the team in that area. Pushing him to a wide right position removed the mobility and pace from the middle, especially needed against a team as quick in attack as Shakhtar, leaving the partnership of Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel rather exposed. That combination has really struggled together previously, having a torrid time against Juventus earlier in the group.
For the first 15 minutes, my concerns for Chelsea were validated as they were completely overrun in midfield, unable to win the ball back and utilise the attacking players at their disposal. Lampard’s injury at this point proved a blessing in disguise with Hazard replacing him and reverting to their usual system, meaning Ramires could drop back into the middle. Although Shakhtar were still the better team, Chelsea were able to influence the game and for a period it was very much end to end stuff. They were at least able to win back possession in midfield and spring forward on the counter on several occasions.
On this evidence, Shakhtar have the potential to have a serious impact on this year’s competition. The front three of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Luiz Adriano and Willian were excellent, with the latter especially shining during the first half. Their movement, technique and creativity were two much for Di Matteo’s defence to deal with and it was only an inspired Petr Cech that kept the score line at a respectable level.
They set up in an attacking three with Luiz Adriano as the fulcrum and the other two buzzing around him. What was noticeable was the intelligence of the two wider players in making space for themselves. They often dropped into positions between the Full-backs and Centre-backs and in between the defence and midfield, resulting in no Chelsea player being sure who was supposed to be picking them up. In the first half especially, they seemed to constantly be free, able to turn and run at the startled Blues defence.
The nature of their attacking player also proved incredibly difficult to cope with. Shakhtar attacked at pace, directly running at the defence with plenty of players in support – the second goal by Fernandinho was typical of this nature. The Brazilian was excellent in midfield and was another of the stand out players last night. It is interesting to compare him with Ramires, in that they are similar players in a similar role. The Shakhtar man dominated his Brazilian counterpart all night – stronger in the tackle, better on the ball and more effective attacking-wise – and it’s remarkable to think he has so few international caps.
Defensively Shakhtar sat very deep, often on the edge of the penalty area. From an attacking perspective this further emphasised the pace of their counter-attacks but, more importantly, this denied space for Chelsea to get in behind. And with Fernando Torres being so poor that he made the bad version of himself look like a world beater, the visitors were effectively neutralised.
Shakhtar were a joy to watch last night and fully deserved their victory over the champions of Europe. They should now qualify for the next stage, very possibly topping the group, leaving Chelsea to battle it out with Juventus for the second spot. Who said the Group Stages were boring?