The battle to qualify from Group H of the UEFA Champions League reaches its conclusion this evening, with three teams in the running for the top two places. Two of those sides, Shakhtar Donetsk and Braga, will face off at the Donbass Arena in a decisive match that will have a strong Brazilian flavour to it.
The Portuguese club has charted new ground this season, reaching the Champions League's group stage for the first time by disposing of Celtic and Sevilla in the qualifying rounds. And despite losing their opening two games in Group H, they have kept their hopes alive with three straight wins.
The task facing them in Ukraine is not an easy one, however. Currently lying third in the section, Braga need to better second-placed Arsenal’s result at home to rock-bottom Partizan. Should the Gunners win, though, Domingos Paciencia's side will have to beat Shakhtar by four clear goals to finish above their opponents on a superior head-to-head record.
As daunting as that proposition may seem, the 41-year-old coach, a former Portugal striker, is confident his troops can pull off yet another landmark achievement. Key to their chances of winning in Donetsk is their sizeable contingent of Brazilian players. Braga have 17 on their books in all, more than any other club in the Champions League, and set a record for the competition when they fielded eight Brazilians in the starting line-up for the home game with Partizan in October.
Quantity aside, Braga’s boys from Brazil also boast quality and have scored every one of the team’s five goals in the group phase, three of them coming from striker Matheus, with fellow forward Lima and defender Moises chipping in with a goal each. And as the 31-year-old centre-half explained to FIFA.com, he and his team-mates will not be lacking in motivation when run out against the Ukrainians.
“We’re setting our sights as high as possible and we’re expecting to get through to the next round," said Moises. "We know it’s going to be difficult, but all sorts of things can happen in football. We’ve been getting better as the competition’s gone on, winning our last three games, and we can score 12 points and still get knocked out, which has never happened before. We’ll be doing all we can to get another win, and we’ve already made history for the club, the city and the Minho region as a whole.”
Not to be outdone, Shakhtar have their own thriving community of six Brazilian stars, two of whom, Luiz Adriano and Douglas Costa, scored all their goals in the 3-0 win at Braga in late September. Giving his exclusive thoughts to FIFA.com, the latter, a 20-year-old playmaker, spoke of the importance of having so many compatriots on the pitch with him.
“I’m used to having a lot of Brazilians around me at Shakhtar, though I have to say that we were pretty amazing in the first game against Braga," Douglas said. "It showed how strong our football is in Europe and how much quality players from our country have.”
An opponent on the pitch tonight, Moises was nevertheless in agreement with the Shakhtar youngster. “It’s always important to have quality players, regardless of where they come from, whether it’s Brazil or any other country,” he said. “Obviously it’s great to have some compatriots in the squad, people who know your culture and who can help the club’s new signings settle in more quickly.”
While the experienced centre-back is sure to be keeping a close eye on the two men who put Braga to the sword in their first meeting, he is well aware that there is more to Shakhtar than just Luiz Adriano and Douglas Costa: “All their Brazilians are quality players, but it’s their strength as a unit that makes them dangerous, not the fact they have players from Brazil. Luiz Adriano and Costa can score goals but, first and foremost, we need to watch out for Shakhtar as a team.”