A highly impressive group campaign, followed by an emphatic 6-2 aggregate defeat of Roma in the Round of 16, gave weight to the argument that Shakhtar Donetsk were ready for an assault on the UEFA Champions League crown this season. However, their hopes were hit hard by a 5-1 first-leg defeat away to quarter-final opponents Barcelona last week, a reverse that has led many to see tonight's return match as about trying to salvage some pride in front of their home faithful.
Determined to ensure that this happens is Brazilian playmaker Fernandinho, who believes any sort of victory over “the best team in the world” would further underline Shakhtar’s continued progress towards the summit of the European game. In an interview with FIFA.com, the 25-year-old, who boasts more than 200 appearances for the Ukrainian giants, discussed a range of issues including his club’s transfer policy, their difficult week and returning from long-term injury.
FIFA.com: Fernandinho, after the heavy first-leg defeat in Camp Nou, your coach Mircea Lucescu said that Barcelona are already through. Do you agree or was it his way of taking the pressure off for the second leg?
Fernandinho: No, it’s extremely difficult. We need to beat Barcelona 4-0 and I don’t even know who were the last team to do that. But we’re going to try to pick up a win at the very least. Even if we don’t manage to knock them out, we’re going to at least try and exit the Champions League with a win in front of our home fans. That would give them something to be pleased about. It’s about playing for Shakhtar’s pride.
In European competition to date, only three teams have ever turned around a four-goal first-leg deficit. Is it fair to say you need a miracle?
Yes, I think so – we need a real miracle. But I’ve not given up hope. They’ve got an important game against Real Madrid next weekend and, who knows, they might rest a few players which would work in our favour. That stat about those three previous comebacks means a lot to us: why shouldn’t we believe we can be the fourth team to achieve that?
On the back of the Barça reverse, Shakhtar lost their first game for over two years at their Donbass Arena home. How hard have those defeats affected team morale?
It was a really unusual week for us. We weren’t really used to that happening. That loss against Barcelona may have got to us, yes. But for that league game afterwards, the coach used eight players who’ve not been playing recently and that had an impact too. The opposition [Obolon Kyiv] set out their stall well, looked to hit us on the counter-attack, and ended up scoring from a free-kick. I don’t think the result reflected the way the game went.
Even if Shakhtar are unlikely to reach the Champions League semi-finals, do you think the team have proved themselves capable of rubbing shoulders with Europe’s big boys?
I think so. Shakhtar have been springing surprises for many years now. This year we were unfortunate enough to come up against the best team in the world. And even so it was interesting to see how much respect their coach had for us. In interviews he asked his players for total concentration because he said he knew we were capable of causing them problems at Camp Nou. We created a lot of scoring opportunities and I can’t remember seeing another team play like that over there. Overall, I think that Shakhtar have had a good campaign and proved their worth. Everything we’ve done over the last few years in the Europa League and Champions League is in the record books and won’t be erased by one defeat.
And, now that you have a settled side, how far can this group of players go?
Everybody here is very ambitious. Fortunately our president has the financial might to be able to invest a lot in players. The coach also has a great vision for the future, part of which is always buying talented youngsters and turning them into stars. We’re on the right track. This year we’ve achieved our long-standing objective of reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League. It was the first time we’d done it and it was great. Now we need to go even further. I think and I believe we’re capable of reaching the semi-finals or final in the coming years.
With that in mind, do you perhaps think that it might help to sign established performers, as well as talented youngsters, to take the team to the next level?
If that happens, that’d be great – you need a strong squad to win titles. At the moment we’ve got a strong starting line-up but the players coming off the bench aren’t up to the same standard. If the president and the coach feel the same and were to go after well-known, experienced players who’ve played in the Champions League or the World Cup, that’d complement the class of the Brazilian players very well. It would certainly help the team.
You mention the class of the Brazilian players. Is that Shakhtar’s biggest asset and how do the Brazilian contingent get on with the club’s European players?
I say that because it’s easy to play with Brazilian players. If you look closely at our first-choice line-up, we’ve got three foreigners, three Ukrainians and five Brazilians. So, as we’re in the majority, the other lads don’t get much of a say! (laughs) Joking aside, the Ukrainians and the foreign lads have a lot of respect for us and understand the situation. And they’re more experienced than us – the youngest has been here about seven years already – and we work hard to earn their trust. At the end of the day, the team relies on its Brazilian attackers to score goals and its European defenders to prevent them. There are no issues at all with that. Of course we don’t share the same bond as among the Brazilian lads, but we’re professionals and we respect each other on and off the pitch.
It is not long since you returned from a serious knee injury. How are you feeling now?
I was sidelined for a long time, even longer than I’d expected. I’d initially thought I’d be back within three months but I ended up being out for seven. That’s why I’m still not 100 per cent yet. My plan is to have a good pre-season in order to make a strong start to the next league season. To be honest, at the moment I think I’m performing at less than 30 per cent of my ability. When you come back from such a long time out you think you’ll be able to do what you used to do before, but it’s not like that at all. You might want to do something, but your body doesn’t respond, which is difficult. I’m hoping to take advantage of these last few games in the Ukrainian league, as well as the domestic cup semi-final and possibly the final, to get back on form.