Manuel Veth –
Thursday’s Europa League quarterfinal Braga vs Shakhtar Donetsk should provide an interesting matchup between two teams that know how to go all the way as both clubs have reached the final of this competition in the past. But while Shakhtar Donetsk won their UEFA Cup final in 2009 against the German club Werder Bremen 2-1 after extra time, SC Braga were defeated by their league rivals FC Porto 1-0 in the 2011 Europa League final.
The 2010-11 season, when they were drawn together in the UEFA Champions League group stage, was also the last—and only time—the two clubs have met in a competitive fixture. Shakhtar ended up winning both matches in the group (2-0 in Donetsk, and 3-0 in Braga). Shakhtar ended up winning the group—ahead of Arsenal—but were eliminated by Barcelona in the semi-final. Braga finished third, and were relegated to the Europa League where they ended up going all the way to the final.
Braga are the Surprise Package of the Tournament
Yet, despite having reached the Europa League final in the past, Braga are one of the biggest surprise packages of this year’s Europa League campaign. In the round of 16, Braga eliminated the Istanbul-based club, Fenerbahçe, in convincing fashion—Braga lost the first leg in Istanbul 1-0, but then dismantled Fenerbahçe 4-1 in Braga.
Braga defender, André Pinto, told UEFA.com, “It’s not every year that the club can make it to the quarter-finals, so for us as a squad, it’s a great thrill. The key is our unity. We’re a united group, and that has been demonstrated by everything we’ve achieved.”
Indeed, André Pinto, together with his French defensive partner, Willy Boly, are a main reason for Braga’s current Europa League run. Yet, Boly believes that the club’s main strength is the collective: “The strength of our team is the collective. Any player can play with any other player. André [Pinto] gives a lot to our team and I think he has great tactical understanding too.”
Shakhtar – Defensive Problems?
Shakhtar, meanwhile, might struggle to find a sold defensive pairing, as central defender, Oleksandr Kucher, is suspended for the match in Portugal on Thursday. Shakhtar’s other main central defender, Yaroslav Rakitskiy, meanwhile, is doubtful for the match, as he has suffered a knee injury—he has travelled to Portugal, and it is expected that his appearance will be a match-day decision.
Hence, Shakhtar might struggle a bit on the central defender position, and it will be interesting to see, who will get the call from head coach, Mircea Lucescu, if Rakitskiy fails to reach the necessary fitness to play on Thursday.
Lucescu has taken the 19 year old, Mykola Matviyenko, to Braga and it is possible that the talented defender, who reached the UEFA Youth League final with Shakhtar in the 2014-15 season, could get some playing time in the Europa League on Thursday. It is more likely, however, that Lucescu will give the more experienced Ivan Ordets and Serhiy Kryvtsov the nod for the encounter against Braga.
Shakhtar’s creative midfielder, Bernard, spoke about the challenges that face Shakhtar against Braga for the Miners official homepage: “Even with the large number of Brazilians taken into account, I don’t think the teams are very similar. Now we are trying to learn Braga’s game tactics with the help of the video shown by the Mister [Mircea Lucescu]. In some ways we are really similar, but in other aspects we are totally different. In general, Braga are strong, we are facing two tough games.” Bernard further added, “Braga are strong defensively and on the counterattack. Although we know that now from the videos.”
Despite the notable absences in their defence, the general belief in the Shakhtar camp is that the chances are good that they will reach the semi-final of the UEFA Europa League, especially when taking into account Shakhtar’s recent 8-1 victory against Metalist Kharkiv on April 1.
The match against Metalist was a great example of Shakhtar’s strength—the two Brazilian wingers Taison (left), and Marlos (right) overpowered Metalist’s defence with their direct running. Taison scored three goals in the match while Marlos added an absolutly stunning goal as well (the highlights can be viewed here). The Argentinian striker, Facundo Ferreyra, added a goal as well; he seems to have established himself as Lucescu’s number one choice as the loan striker up front since Alex Teixeira’s departure to China in the winter.
Braga vs Shakhtar Donetsk – Counter Machines at Work
Shakhtar typically play in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and with Alex Teixeira in the squad—who usually played a bit behind a natural striker—that formation would turn into a 4-3-3 going forward. Since Teixeira’s departure, Lucescu has used the Ukrainian super talent, Viktor Kovalenko, in the role of a shadow striker/playmaker, but Kovalenko is not yet the prolific goal scorer that Alex Teixeira was, and as a result the 4-2-3-1 formation has become a bit more static since the winter break.
Another feature of Shakhtar’s play is the fast counter attack with both defensive backs, Ismaily, who was bought by Shakhtar from Braga on a controversial deal, and Darijo Srna joining the attack when winning the ball. This feature was also apparent in Shakhtar’s home win against Metalist when Ismaily scored one of Shakhtar’s eight goals on that day.
Overall, it seems that both teams have a similar football philosophy, and it will be interesting to see if both club’s inclination to utilize fast counter attacking speed will translate into an open match on Thursday. In general, Shakhtar should have the advantage over two legs, and should be considered the favourite to reach the semi-final. But, in the past, Braga has shown that they are not pushovers, and they will certainly provide a strong challenge for the Ukrainians.
Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist, and PhD candidate at King’s College London. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. His thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, and will be available to readers later this year. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.