Such an assessment now appears to have wholly underestimated their backbone, determination and resourcefulness. Just as did Russian president Vladmir Putin with his country’s February invasion of Ukraine that has been responsible for the destruction of normal life in the nation. But, crucially, as they make inroads with a counter-offensive, not their will to survive or reclaim previous status. The very characteristics that Shakhtar appear to be channelling in confounding expectations ahead of meeting Ange Postecoglou’s men on Wednesday in the temporary European home of Warsaw to which the war has forced them to decant.
The Ukrainians do so as no less than Group F leaders, following their startling 4-1 triumph away to RB Leipzig last Tuesday as Madrid scored a 3-0 success at Celtic Park. Shakht ar’s success - which already means they h ave eclipsed their two point, two goal haul from their pre-conflict group campaign of last year - would have no doubts caused backs to stiffen within the Scottish champions. Not least because two of their goals were claimed by summer signing Marian Shved, who had, essentially, a non-career at Celtic. In the Champions League arena, such players have a habit of coming back to haunt the Glasgow club. Think scoring contributions by Harald Brattbaak for Rosenborg in the group stages 21 years ago or Jo Inge Berget with Malmo to eliminate Ronny Deila’s side at the play-off stage in 2015.
And there is much more else beside for Postecoglou’s men to be concerned about in facing up to the seemingly indefatigable Ukrainians. Anyone who believes that Celtic will be handed an advantage in heading to Poland for their hosting by the Donetsk club patently hasn’t been paying much attention to their travails. Not since Russia’s previous excursion into the Dombas region in 2014 - when they also annexed Crimea - have they played in their home arena. Indeed, the Leipzig showing was all the more remarkable since until three weeks ago they hadn’t played competitively anywhere in 2022. The latest Russian invasion began during Ukrainian football’s three-month winter shutdown. A cessation that ended up extending until league football resumed - behind closed doors for obvious security reasons - in the closing week in August. Shakhtar have since played five top flight games, and currently sit top of their Premier League with four wins and a draw. They go into their Celtic encounter on a run of five victories thanks to scrapping a 2-1 ‘home’ - it was in Kyiv - success over Chornomorets Odesa. A result earned with a 96th minute winner from Lassana Triore that followed another Shved strike.
Triore is now one of only three foreigners in a senior set-up previously renowned for boasting promising Brazilian players attracted by mega-bucks salaries. FIFA eligibility rules allowed all foreign players to suspend their contracts during the current conflict, which Shakhtar maintain has cost them £40m in lost transfers. However, they were able to cash-in on a quartet of their Brazilian cohort. Right-winger David Neres joined Benfica for £13.7m, a £13m fee was acquired from Fiorentina for right-back Dodo, central midfielder Marcos Antonio moved to Lazio for £6.75m and RB Salzburg picked up striker Fernando for £5.4m. Such sales have obviously weakened them. But, as yet, not to the extent it was assumed would be the case.
Triore chose not join the exodus in demonstraing principles rare in the modern game, the Burkina Faso international posting on Instagram last week that it didn’t “feel right" to leave when the forward has only recently returned from nine months out with a knee ligament injury. A period during which he said he "always felt supported by everyone at Shakhtar". Aside from Triore, Brazilian full-back Lucas Taylor and Croatian midfielder Neven Durasek, manager Igor Jovicevic is largely forced to rely on long-servers or youthful, home-grown products. That, though, has brought a sense of unity - formenting a cause to propel - witnessed in Donetsk’s on-field endeavours. Exemplified in Leipzig with a performance that left captain and stalwart Taras Stepanenko marvelling at his men’s motivation. "I could not have imagined in my wildest dreams such a game with four goals for us,” he said. “But we played well and I feel we deserved that result. Yes, it is right I have been with the club for over a decade. This is a new team, but many of these young players are from the Shakhtar academy so they have the Shakhtar spirit and this really helps us a lot."
Stepanenko might be gilding the lily, somewhat. Four of those that started last Tuesday played in Shakhtar’s 2-0 victory over Real Madrid in the Champions League group stages two years ago. A campaign wherein they secured home and away success over Spanish behemoths they have now met for the past three seasons in the competition’s sectional stage. Moreover, in the hugely-talented 21-year-old winger Mykhaylo Mudryk, the club have an asset so prized there was chat of Arsenal launching a £30m bid for him in the closing days of the summer transfer window. And it was only last Christmas West Ham were being credited as being prepared to fork out the same eye-watering fee to snare the club’s centre-back Mykola Matviyenko, a 26-year-old already boasting 51 Ukranian caps.
Defender Valeriy Bondar perhaps best articulated the nature of the challenge awaiting Celtic this week. “Our victory in the first match is a blow to the table,” he said. “Our club wants to go far in the Champions League so every match is a final for us. That’s a warning to the other clubs in the group. To beat us this season will be very difficult for any team. We put in so much effort and fight in every match.”