Shakhtar and Zenit share the spoils in wide-open, high-tempo affair
With two minutes remaining of Wednesday's Champions League game between Shakhtar Donetsk and Zenit St Petersburg, Razvan Rat, the Shakhtar left back, sprayed a cross field ball to the right back, Dario Srna. Nothing too extraordinary about that, except that both were 20-30 yards inside the Zenit half. That's how attacking the game was, that's how much Shakhtar chased a late winner its performance wouldn't have merited.
It was breathless and brilliant, a match in which both sides seemed to play perpetually on the counterattack, in which any idea of midfield control was forgotten within the first 30 seconds. The only downside -- for both sides -- was that a 2-2 draw probably plays into the hands of the other two sides in the group, Porto and APOEL. Certainly Shakhtar, with two points from three games, two of them at home, face a tough task to qualify.
There is a theory that Russian and Ukrainian sides are disadvantaged by the calendar. Although Ukraine's season runs autumn-spring (as Russia's will from next season), the length of the winter break means a short close-season so they effectively play from March through to November. By this stage of the season, when the Champions League group phase is at its height, players have been playing for the best part of seven months: fatigue, inevitably, is an issue, while western European sides are still fresh, having played only from August. Players from western European sides should be fitter.
Of course, come the spring, the opposite is true, once Russian and Ukrainian sides have shaken off the rustiness of the winter break. If they can get through the group stage, then logically they should prosper. The theory is persuasive, if only because it explains the disparity in performance between Champions league and UEFA Cup/Europa League. CSKA, Zenit and Shakhtar have all won the secondary competition, beating some extremely good sides on the way (Zenit, for instance, had to get by Villarreal, Bayer Leverkusen, Marseille, Bayern Munich and Rangers to win the UEFA Cup in 2008) yet CSKA are the only Russian or Ukrainian side to win a knockout game in the Champions League in the past decade.
The counter-argument would be Wednesday's game in Donetsk. It simply never let up. Zenit pressed high from the off, pressuring Shakhtar in possession and clearly rattling it. Zenit's coach, Luciano Spalletti, has been a pioneer of strikerlessness, using Francesco Totti as a false nine at Roma, and pursuing the theory at Zenit with the slightly more strikerly Alexander Kerzhakov.
Kerzhakov was absent, though, and so Spalletti was left to use his Plan B, Alexander Bukharov. The center forward is from the target-man mold and can look dreadfully lumbering at times. There was one moment in Donetsk in the second half when he sliced hideously wide from the edge of the box as though he'd only just noticed his feet and wasn't quite sure how they worked. But generally this was a splendid performance from him, mobile, direct and surprisingly deft. His pass for Zenit's first equalizer, shaped in to Roman Shirokov with the outside of his right foot, took great imagination and precision.
Essentially, though, he was there to make space for Danny, who was tireless. Zenit play an odd hybrid system, a cross between a 4-3-2-1 and a 4-3-3. Danny operates to the left of the striker, but deeper, and with license to roam; Viktor Fayzulin offers more natural width on the right. With Igor Denisov deep in midfield and Konstantin Zyryanov a distributor alongside him, Roman Shirokov has a shuttling role, linking a solid back six to the very fluid front three. Both Danny and Shirokov had excellent games, and but for the heroics of Oleksandr Rybka -- and, in Shirokov's case, a weak penalty -- both could have had hat tricks.
As it was, Shirokov took one of his harder chances of the night, taking Buhkariv's clever pass, rounding Rybka and squeezing in form a narrow angle, and Zenit's second equalizer -- which made then the first away side every to score twice at the Donbass Arena in the 49th game played at the stadium -- was a direct result of its pressing. Dmytro Chyhrynskyi was hurried into a nervy square pass to Oleksandr Chyzhov, who slipped and, failing in a comical attempt to handle, presented possession to Fayzulin, who scored with a brilliantly decisive chip from 40 yards.
Shakhtar will feel it was a needless goal to give away, but the truth is was nothing more than Zenit, who had also hit the post through Fayzulin, deserved. Although Shakhtar played well in parts, and put together some eye-catching passing moves, it never quite seemed to have the same spark as Zenit, and certainly defensively never got to grips with its opponent.
Both its goals came against the run of play, both with moments of individual flair: first Willian stepped inside and unleashed an angled drive into the top corner from 20 yards, and then Luiz Adriano turned brilliantly onto a Rat cross-shot to put Shakhtar back ahead just before halftime. Its coach, Mircea Lucescu, was once a devotee of the diamond, reasoning that was the best way to get his fullbacks forward. He has since shifted to a 4-2-3-1, but it's still the fullbacks who have to provide most of the width. Srna, the captain, had a fine game at right back, but the thought did occur that one of the reasons he and Danny had such striking games was that neither seemed overly bothered with marking the other.
The division of labor is clear: eastern Europeans in the back four and the more defensive of the two holding midfield positions; Brazilians in the five more creative positions. Fernandinho, as the more creative of the holders, is supposed to link defense and attack, but he never got to grips with Shirokov, performing a similar function for Zenit.
That made for a thrilling game, but it was hard not to wonder whether the openness of both sides may end up costing them. Shakhtar, in particular, look a side that needs to control possession. The teams meet against in St Petersburg in a two weeks. There a win really will be crucial for Shakhtar.