Over the last decade Shakhtar Donetsk have become a dominant force in Ukraine and an emerging power in Europe, showing the way for many of the region's clubs.
One of the architects of their rise to prominence was Brazilian midfielder Willian, a fact not lost on upwardly mobile Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala, who paid one of the January transfer window’s biggest fees for the services of the former Corinthians youth product. Aside from his obvious talent, the 24-year-old also brings with him the kind of experience that can only help his new employers in their quest to make an impact in Europe.
Explaining his objectives to FIFA.com, the player said: “I’ve come here to do the same that I did at Shakhtar: to play well, win titles and take the club as high as they can go. In short, my aim is to win.”
Willian proved his credentials as a winner at Shakhtar, helping them to four league titles, three Ukrainian Cups and Super Cups apiece, and the UEFA Cup in 2009. He also appeared in the club’s best-ever UEFA Champions League run in 2011, when they reached the quarter-finals before being knocked out by eventual champions Barcelona.
His goal now is to repeat that success with Anzhi, a club that have made great strides in recent times. Arriving in the Russian Football Premier League as second division champions only two seasons ago, they finished 11th in their first campaign in the top flight and bettered that with fifth place last season. Their rise has continued apace this year, with Anzhi just two points adrift of leaders CSKA Moscow in second.
“It’s a fact,” he said in reference to their rapid ascent. “The club has got a big future. They’re signing players, putting together a great squad and competing with the richest clubs in Europe, while also fighting it out for the league championship. We’ve got a strong and well-drilled squad.”
The Brazilian was made to feel right at home as soon as he arrived at the club, as he explained: “They even played jokes on me. At my first lunch they made me stand up on a chair and introduce myself, but they barely let me speak. Whenever I tried to say something they just shouted me down. The players know how to have fun. You can see that in training. Everyone helps each other out.”
Right at home
Fitting in at his new club has proved no problem for Willian. Having spent so much time in Donetsk and grown used to life in eastern Europe, he has settled down quickly in Moscow, where Anzhi's players live despite the club being based in the southern republic of Dagestan.
“The cold is the same and the language too,” he joked. His family have also taken well to life in the Russian capital, where there is plenty for them to see and do, making it, as he commented, “a much more attractive option for everyone”.
On the downside he has left a large group of friends behind him at Shakhtar, where he was just one member of sizeable posse of Brazilian players.
He does, however, have the company of two compatriots at Anzhi, with whom he has already struck up friendships: talented holding midfielder Jucilei, who, like Willian, is also an ex-Corinthian, and centre-half Joao Carlos. Also in the squad is one Samuel Eto’o, the club’s best-known asset and a player who will be performing at close quarters with the new Brazilian arrival.
The presence of the Cameroonian star relieves some of the pressure on Willian, who is relishing the opportunity to play alongside a striker who has won virtually everything there is to win: “I’m very happy about it and it’s an honour to play with him. He likes to have fun too and he’s a good person. I can see he's a very intelligent player and that's going to make things easier.”
The two did not take long to show what they can achieve together. In his very first game for Anzhi, the first leg of their UEFA Europa League Round-of-32 tie with Germany’s Hannover, Willian teed up Eto’o for their side’s opening goal in a 3-1 win.
“I hope we can do that more times,” smiled the Brazilian. “I always try to put my team-mates through on goal.”
Aware of his potential, Anzhi coach Guus Hiddink has pushed Willian up into a more advanced position, deploying him as a withdrawn striker, a switch that the player has been happy to make: “He’s shown complete faith in me. In that first game I played in a different way to what I’d been doing at Shakhtar, though it was a lot more similar to my role when I broke through at Corinthians.”
With the Dutchman’s off-field guidance and Eto’o by his side on the pitch, Willian could hardly be better placed to justify the €35m fee that Anzhi paid for him.
“Obviously they’re going to want a return on that, but I’ve got to stay cool,” he said. “I can’t put pressure on myself when I go out there. I’ve got to let things happen naturally so that I can show they made the right decision in spending that money.”
As far as the team is concerned, Willian is convinced Anzhi can achieve big things: “We’re going to try and win the lot: the league, the cup and the Europa League. We’re going to play with ambition. They’re tough tournaments, but when you look at what the club's doing in buying players and putting a strong unit together, then the titles are bound to come. Who knows, they might come straightaway? After all, that’s what I was used to in Ukraine.”