While it may struggle for attention against the heavyweight contest of Real Madrid against Manchester United, the clash between Shakhtar Donetsk and Borussia Dortmund provides an intriguing meeting between two sides on the verge of truly establish themselves among Europe’s elite.
The two teams were among the most impressive in the Champions League group stage, with Shakhtar knocking out holders Chelsea and Dortmund finishing above the mighty Madrid.
Yet, both sides come into the contest with question marks hanging over them.
Shakhtar have not played a competitive match since their defeat by Juventus at the beginning of December, due to the Ukrainian league being on its long winter break. The calendar in Eastern Europe has often negatively impacted sides upon the resumption of European competition.
Shakhtar have tried to compensate for the lack of competitive action by playing several friendlies while on training camps in both Spain and the United Arab Emirates.
Having experienced the situation several times over the years, coach Mircea Lucescu is confident that his side will be able to cope.
“We have got used to playing European games in February against teams who are in better shape than us because they have been playing competitive games in the winter while we haven't,” he explained, according to UEFA’s website. “We plan our preparations to compensate for that.
“Of course, you cannot compare friendly games in the United Arab Emirates and Spain with Bundesliga matches, but we have tried to reach the same fitness level as Dortmund. Wednesday's game will show how well we have managed.”
Shakhtar have also been disadvantaged over the winter by the loss of influential Brazilian attacking midfielder Willian to big-spending Russian outfit Anzhi Makhachkala. The Ukrainian champions appeared to have made provisions for that loss, though, with the signing of Taison from Metalist Kharkiv.
In the first leg, Shakhtar could be without key defensive midfield presence Tomas Hubschman, who is still recovering from chickenpox. Ilsinho is ruled out with a meniscus injury.
Dortmund are already fully back in the swing of things after the Bundesliga’s winter break, but their hopes of winning the title for a third straight year now appear all but over. Saturday’s shock 4-1 home loss to Hamburg leaves them 15 points off of the phenomenal pace being set by Bayern Munich.
Throughout this season, though, Dortmund have reserved their best performances for the Champions League and there is a definite sense that the competition is their priority this season.
“Defeat against Hamburg did not cause us any harm,” said manager Jurgen Klopp. “Our goals are high in the Champions League. This is a first round of 16 tie for all of us and I do not need to motivate the players in any special way because there are no weak opponents among the 16 sides in the knockout stage. If we show our best football, everything will be alright.”
Klopp will be without Ilkay Gundogan, through injury, and fellow midfielder Kevin Grosskreutz, due to illness. Marcel Schmelzer is also struggling with illness but is expected to start, while Nevan Subotic is available after his absence with a calf injury.
Shakhtar Donetsk (probable)
D; Srna, Chygrynskiy, Rakitskiy, Rat
M: Fernandinho, Stepanenko
Taison, Mkhitaryan, Teixeira
Borussia Dortmund (probable)
D: Piszczek, Hummels, Subotic, Schmelzer
M: Kehl, Sahin
Blaszczykowski, Gotze, Reus
Prediction: The first leg promises to be evenly matched. Dortmund have been strong away from home all season, losing just once in the Bundesliga and Champions League combined, while Shakhtar have been phenomenally good at home.
Shakhtar will be looking to travel to Dortmund at least without conceding an away goal, but the loss of Hubschman could be a massive blow to their chances. Add their lack of competitive action and the best Shakhtar may be able to manage is a scoring draw, which will give Dortmund the slight edge for the second leg.
Shakhtar Donetsk 1-1 Borussia Dortmund
Where to watch: The first leg of the Champions League last-16 tie will kick-off at 2.45 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by Fox Soccer Plus, with a live stream available via a free trial to Fox Soccer 2Go.
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