"I don't think it is a crisis," defender Alexander Buttner said of the current situation at his Manchester United club. Unfortunately, when players are forced to deny the existence of a crisis, it is a certain sign that there is one. United's next Champions League opponent, Shakhtar Donetsk, have been doing the same for over a month now.
While United boss David Moyes is said to be "concerned" about the poor results of his team, so too is Shakhtar manager Mircea Lucescu. The Ukrainian champions head into Wednesday night's clash at the Donbass Arena knowing only too well there is no room for error. The Premier League champions are in a very similar situation. It could be a fateful evening.
"People say that we are in crisis," Shakhtar captain Darijo Srna said at the end of August. "They should analyze everything after the season ends. I am sure that we will learn our lessons and become even stronger. There is no doubt in my heart that we will be champions again."
- Ferdinand left behind for Shakhtar trip
Srna was speaking after his side were thrashed 3-1 by Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, Shakhtar's first defeat of the season. The Miners had started the campaign in the usual manner, winning their first six fixtures, but that first loss prompted discussions about crisis. That's how things stand in Ukraine. Just like Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain, or Celtic in Scotland, Shakhtar must always win. Anything else is deemed unnatural. Well, anything else is unnatural.
Srna duly promised Shakhtar would win the next fixture against Metalist Kharkiv. "They are the strongest team in Ukraine after ourselves. This game is decisive," he said. Shakhtar hosted the game and took the lead, but Marko Devic managed to equalize 13 minutes from time, and Metalist went close to winning it late on. While Kharkiv stayed top of the league, the situation at Shakhtar deteriorated as they lost 3-2 at lowly Karpaty Lviv.
Two defeats might not seem so bad to an outsider, but let's look at it from the right perspective. In 2012-13 Shakhtar won 23 league games out of the first 24, and dropped only a few points after the title was mathematically assured. They lost only twice during the last two seasons. Now they had lost twice in a matter of weeks. Taking one point from three successive games is truly unheard of for this team -- something that hasn't happened since April 2004. Lucescu was hired by president Rinat Akhmetov's club in May '04 -- making the current barren spell the worst in the manager's record-length tenure.
Things became a bit brighter in the second half of September, as Shakhtar somewhat luckily beat a naive Real Sociedad on the opening day of the Champions League and then recorded two straightforward 3-0 wins over minnows in league and cup fixtures. They were still far from impressive, though, and on Saturday disaster struck again, as the Miners went painfully close to losing the city derby to Metalurh Donetsk.
Such a defeat has never happened before. Shakhtar have won 30 league games out of 32 against their poor neighbours, drawing the other two. Lucescu fielded his strongest team on Saturday, but they were soon trailing 2-0. Eventually a point was salvaged in a 2-2 draw, but that didn't really help to improve the atmosphere. Champions every year since 2010, Shakhtar are looking increasingly likely to lose their crown.
But remarkably, it's not Dynamo Kyiv that are posing the threat; the biggest Ukrainian club, as far as history is concerned, are experiencing an infinitely deeper crisis. Oleg Blokhin's return as manager proved to be a total disaster. Metalist, though, are doing extremely well. After securing a second-place finish for the first time ever last season, they are dreaming of going one place higher. Their unfortunate elimination from the Champions League, enforced by UEFA for past misdemeanours, enables them to concentrate solely on domestic duties.
Metalist are now leading Shakhtar by a whopping six points, while manager Juande Ramos and Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk are second, three points ahead of Lucescu's defending champions, who share third place with the surprise package Chornomorets Odessa. Even Srna is starting to admit the reality. "The team is not the same as last season. We lost some very important players, and it is tough. But we are Shakhtar, and we believe in ourselves" the veteran Croat said.
The captain knows only too well that Shakhtar's success over the years has been based on stability. The club remarkably managed to keep its best players, including the foreign stars, for very long periods, thus enabling the team to evolve and improve. This approach fell apart in 2013, starting with the departure of Willian, who forced his way out of the club; he was sold to Anzhi Makhachkala for his release clause against Lucescu's will. That specific incident was actually less dramatic than you might expect, and Willian is wildly overrated, as can easily be seen from his exploits at Anzhi and now Chelsea. In the summer, though, Shakhtar lost two of their irreplaceable stalwarts.
The club didn't want to sell Fernandinho, the driving force in the Shakhtar midfield since 2005, but the 28-year-old Brazilian desperately wanted to test himself at a higher level, and it was impossible for Lucescu to prevent him from moving to Manchester City. Armenian genius Henrikh Mkhitaryan also made clear his desire to leave and went AWOL during the summer.
"We don't intend to sell him," Lucescu said in May. However, in the end they had no other option but to let him go to Borussia Dortmund, who found Mkhitaryan to be a perfect replacement for Mario Goetze. Mkhitaryan scored 25 goals in the league last season, which is an all-time Ukrainian record. His contribution is sorely missed.
Shakhtar received a total of 70 million euros for the duo, and Akhmetov invested all the money in new acquisitions. It is taking time for them to find their feet in the new surroundings, however, and up to now their contribution has been minimal. Fernando was signed from Gremio, where Shakhtar scouting is especially strong, but he is by no means a new Fernandino, and Fernando's mistakes are proving costly. Tricky star Bernard, who learned a lot from Ronaldinho at Atletico Mineiro, mainly sits on the bench, as does Wellington Nem, who arrived from Fluminense. The fourth Brazilian recruit, Fred (not to be confused with the ex-Lyon striker), has scored only twice so far.
"The new players are talented, but they don't really help us as yet," Lucescu said. "We are not the same when two or three of them are on the pitch together. We need to be patient with them." But time is not a luxury that he has right now.
Shakhtar have actually struggled with recruitment recently, and many of their signings have not been up to standard or have been unable to settle at the club. Taison, bought from Metalist in January to replace Willian, failed to live up to the expectations. Devic, who arrived from Metalist a year ago, didn't adapt and was sold back in the winter. Lucescu then had to look on with envy as the naturalised Serb scored 13 goals in 11 league games (more than all the Shakhtar strikers combined) for Kharkiv to help guide them into pole position this season.
But if Shakhtar's attack is struggling, the defence is doing even worse. And Lucescu's controversial decision to endlessly rotate his two goalkeepers, Andriy Pyatov and Anton Kanibolotskiy, certainly doesn't help the situation. The Miners conceded no more than 18 goals in 30 games in each of the four previous seasons. This term they already have 11 goals against them in 11 matches. The demise of Shakhtar is becoming more pronounced.
Add the unwelcome distraction of Galatasaray, who tried to lure Lucescu back to Istanbul last week after sensationally sacking Fatih Terim, and you are left with a team in desperate need of some positivity. So, too, are Manchester United. Wednesday night will be a clash of two wounded giants. Lucescu is hugely more experienced in the Champions League than Moyes, but their teams are equally vulnerable.
The stakes are high for both teams, and potentially crucial to the season.