There were once simpler times in Ukraine. War did not ripple through the nation. No pro-Russian separatists declaring republics, no revolutions ousting current presidents, no military stalemates driving football clubs out of their homes. In 2011 the foundations were of course being laid, an increasing divide in a nation torn between two neighbours. Russia to its east and the European Union to its west, a country deciding which path it wanted to take.
But in Eastern Ukraine, in a city which would just three years later be at the centre of the storm, the home of the soon to be born People’s Republic of Donetsk, its footballers were enjoying perhaps the most golden moment in the famous club’s history. A new 52,000 seater stadium barely two years years old, its seats decked in orange and black and its pitch playing home to a collection of players from around the globe, dominating Ukraine and challenging on the continent. Shakhtar Donetsk in 2010/2011 were among the best of the best.
Champions League quarter finalists, only Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona could knock them out, two rounds before lifting the trophy themselves. Occasionally in football you get teams trapped in time, a squad of talents whose trajectories seem scarcely possible to believe. Shakhtar Donetsk in 2010/2011 were such a team. They may go down as the finest eleven a Ukrainian club has ever assembled. Few worldwide could rival it.
Andriy Pyatov – Goalkeeper
You may not believe me but if you’ve watched enough football you’ll recognise the Ukrainian international. A towering dependable goalkeeper, his consistency is encapsulated in his list of clubs. Now in his 14th season with Shakhtar his journey seems to be coming to an end but it has been an exciting one. Despite playing the vast majority of his career at one club, Shakhtar have played their home games in 4 different cities. Donetsk (2007-2014), Lviv (2014-2016), Kharkiv (2017-2020), Kyiv (2020-) and the veteran has witnessed all the ups and downs that have gone along with it. In the Shakthar 2010-2011 season he played 42 times.
Darijo Srna – Right Back
No man has played more times for Shakhtar Donetsk. 536 appearances across fifteen trophy-laden years. Ten Ukrainian league titles, seven Ukranian Cups and the crowning glory in Shakhtar’s history, the 2008/2009 UEFA Cup. A man-of the match performance in the final to boot. In a team full of veritable superstars his contribution was huge.
Such was his standing that Chelsea and Bayern Munich came calling. Both times he turned them down, only leaving the club for one season with Cagliari. Shakhtar, however, wanted him back making him assistant manager and now director of football. His impact with Croatia was just as immense, 134 caps and memorable free kicks aplenty, most famously versus Australia in the 2006 World Cup. Again no man has played for Croatia more than he. In the 2010/2011 season he made 39 appearances for Shakhtar scoring four times.
Yaroslav Rakitskyi – Centre-Back
With the attacking talent to come the next two players will always go under the radar. His second season with the first team the Ukrainian who would go on to amass 54 caps for his country was, at the age of just twenty-one, already Shakhtar’s first choice centre-back. Upon leaving Shakhtar in 2019 he would go on to win the Russian Premier League twice with Zenit St Petersburg.
Răzvan Raț – Left-Back
The Romanian left-back with a superb name was reaching the twilight of his career, and well on the way to seven Ukrainian Premier League titles. West Ham fans will remember him for his brief stint in the 2013/14 season and he would finish his career with Rayo Vallecano in Spain, PAOK in Greece, before returning to Romania for a final sojourn with Poli Timişoara. In 14 years he won 113 caps for Romania, fourth on the all-time list.
Dmytro Chygrynskiy – Centre-Back
Centre-back Chygrynskiy may be the most interesting player you never knew existed. Beginning his career with Shakhtar, the Ukrainian started to develop a reputation as one of Europe’s most promising defenders. Shakhtar’s UEFA cup campaign in 2008/09 drew wider attention before he signed for Barcelona that summer aged twenty-three. Around €25 million was the fee. He would last one season in Catalonia, playing fourteen times and winning La Liga with the club before Shakhtar bought him back for just €15 million a season later. A thunderous volley versus Arsenal marked the peak of his return before he disappeared from view. Four subsequent seasons with Shakhtar he managed barely thirty-one appearances and now finds himself settled in Greece with AEK Athens, having not received an international cap after the age of 25.
Fernandinho – Defensive Midfielder
By the time Fernandinho joined Manuel Pellegrini at Manchester City in 2013 he was twenty-eight, a six-time winner of Ukraine’s top division and the best player in Ukraine in 2008/2009. One of seven Brazilians in the squad it is testament to the standing of Shakhtar that he spent eight seasons with the club, joining as a twenty-year-old from Atletico Paranaense for £7m in 2005.
£34 million may seem a snip by today’s standards but in 2013 his move to Manchester was the seventh most expensive signing in world football that year, with the Brazilian the oldest player to make the top 10 list. Few could have predicted quite the impact. Over three-hundred and thirty appearances later, a place in the 2018/19 team of the year he has won three league titles (soon to be four), five league cups and one FA Cup. If he could top it off with a Champions League win in June then this already illustrious chapter may need rewriting.
The 2010/2011 season saw him score three times in twenty appearances for Shakhtar.
Tomáš Hübschman – Defensive Midfielder
Before we pile into one of the most attacking line ups the Champions League has ever seen, in the Czech Republic’s Hübschman, Shakhtar had one last piece of defensive stability. Deployed as either a centre back or defensive midfielder Hübschman joined in 2004 from Sparta Prague. Embedding himself as a constant in various positions throughout the team. A major part in five clean sheets for Shakhtar throughout the 2010-2011 Champions League campaign he would leave the club in 2014 after 268 appearances, returning to his homeland with Jablonec, and would amass 58 international caps.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan – Centre Midfielder (at this point in time)
Slowly developing a reputation as an exciting young prospect, Shakhtar making the 2010/2011 Champions League quarter finals was the first Europe really saw of the twenty-one year old Armenian. Then playing often as a third centre-midfielder he would be slowly be given more freedom throughout his three seasons at Donetsk, plundering 25 goals in only 29 league matches in his final campaign in Ukraine.
Borussia Dortmund had seen enough to make Mkhitaryan their record signing (€27.5 million) and again over three seasons he would become a mainstay in Jurgen Klopp’s side, before kicking on under Thomas Tuchel. Twenty-three goals from attacking midfield in his final season, Manchester United took the plunge but his four year stay in England will likely be looked on as failing to meet expectations. 122 appearances and 22 goals for Manchester United and Arsenal, he did form a crucial role in Manchester United’s Europa League triumph in his first season, scoring six goals, but fell out of favour under Mourinho at United and latterly Unai Emery at Arsenal.
Armenia’s record goalscorer, Mkhitaryan is enjoying a renaissance aged thirty-two as Roma seek a return to the Champions League.
Jadson – Attacking Midfielder
The Brazilian attacking midfielder is one of those players who makes you question why he never played for a bigger European club but this would be failing to give Shakhtar their credit. Signed in early 2005 from Atlético Paranaense, paving the way for Fernandinho joining from the same club a few months later, he quickly embedded himself as a goal-scoring midfielder. In 2008/09 he enjoyed his greatest moment, scoring the winner in extra time to earn Shakhtar the UEFA Cup.
64 goals in 274 appearances he enjoyed seven and a half successful seasons in eastern Ukraine winning six league titles. Despite rumours in the summer of 2011 linking him to Arsenal, he decided to return home to Brazil in 2012 with Sao Paulo at the age of just twenty-eight.
A Copa Sudamericana was his immediate reward (South America’s Europa League equivalent) as he added the last of his eight Brazil caps. He would move to Corinithians, win two league titles with the club, sandwiched between a year long stay in China and their second tier title with Tianjin Quanjian. Retiring in 2019, Jadson may just be the best player you’ve never heard of. He scored eight times in thirty-eight games for Shakhtar in 2010/2011.
Willian – Winger
Willian Borges da Silva may have come to Chelsea via Anzhi Makhachkala but it was at Shakhtar where he spent all but his last six months on the continent. He was signed from Corinthians for €14 million in 2007 on the back of his first season as a professional. The Brazilian immediately hit the ground running in Ukraine playing twenty times on the way to Shakhtar winning the league title. From there he only grew and in 2010/2011 no player played more games in orange and black. With the typical quick feet you’d expect from a Brazilian he was already displaying a nous which regarded possession as a special commodity.
Attracting attention across Europe, his move to Russia was a sign of just how much money was heading into Russian football at the time. €35 million, he remains today the third most expensive signing in Russian history but would move to Chelsea for just £30m six months later as the Russian club’s owner slashed their playing budget by two-thirds. 238 appearances in Ukraine and Russia, all but seventeen of these came for Shakhtar.
Anzhi’s loss was very much Chelsea’s gain. 339 appearances later, a second UEFA Cup (Europa League) to add to his 2008/09 triumph with Donetsk and two Premier League titles, his recent struggles at Arsenal will likely be forgotten before long. 70 caps for Brazil and now aged thirty-two he is another in the long list of an incredible talent factory.
Douglas Costa – Winger
Despite a resumé most famously featuring Bayern Munich and Juventus, nowhere has Costa played more football than for Shakhtar Donetsk. Six seasons, 202 appearances and 38 goals, the Brazilian signed aged just nineteen and for €6 million from Gremio. His first game on European soil? A 2-1 loss at Craven Cottage in Fulham’s run to the final.
One quarter of a Brazilian front four he would win five league titles in Ukraine, three in Italy and two in Germany and is still only thirty. 31 caps for his country he is now back on loan at Bayern Munich and will be targeting his first Champions League triumph.Embed from Getty Images
Luiz Adriano – Striker
The sole out and out striker in Shakhtar’s side, Luiz Adriano stayed longer than any other Brazilian. Signed from Internacional in 2007, Shakhtar took the plunge after a number of eye-catching performances in the Club World Cup, a tournament the Brazilian side won. Signed for a reported €3 million he would spend nine seasons in Ukraine, netting more than fifteen times in six different campaigns. A pacey striker with a finisher’s instinct he scored nine times in the 2014/2015 Champions League group stage, a then record shared with Cristiano Ronaldo. It was performances like this that eventually earned a move to AC Milan for just €8 million in the summer of 2015, as well as four caps for Brazil. In Milan he couldn’t replicate his form and headed eastwards eighteen months later for four successful seasons with Spartak Moscow, earning a Russian Premier League title on the way.
Now thirty-three he is still playing some of his best football, helping fire Palmeiras to their second Copa Libertadores title. This final triumph means he has won South America’s premier competition, the Club World Cup and the UEFA Cup all with different teams.
Eduardo – Striker
Arsenal fans will be well familiar with the Croatian striker, who’s name I will always associate whenever I think the term ‘horror tackle’. In north London he never quite recovered from the fracture that had Sky Sports avoiding all replays but in Donetsk he was enjoying a successful renaissance. Four goals in Europe, he would score twelve in thirty-three appearances in 2010/11 without ever being the first choice striker. Three more seasons followed before he would make a one year move away from Shakhtar, moving to Brazilian club Flamengo. A return to Shakhtar came calling in July 2015 where she scored eighteen goals in the subsequent season. Brief stints in Brazil once more (Atletico Paranaense) and in Poland with Legia Warsaw would conclude his career.
The 47 goals in 47 games in the 2006/07 season with Dinamo Zagreb remains a club record and he scored twenty nine goals in sixty-four caps during a ten year international career.
This is the latest in our Europe’s underdogs series, if you have others you would like us to explore, feel free to let us know in the comments section.