Shakhtar Donetsk should win the championship this season, but it says something for the changes in the Ukrainian league that the verb is "should" rather than "will". The shakiness of Manchester United's start to the campaign may be more obvious – while United lie 12th in the Premier League table, Shakhtar are third in the Premier Liha – but this has been a sobering couple of months for Mircea Lucescu's side.
There are still 19 games to go, and Shakhtar have won seven of their 11 matches so far, but the landscape has changed. They are five points clear of their traditional rivals Dynamo Kyiv, whose refusal to accept the inevitable and replace Oleh Blokhin becomes increasingly baffling by the week, but Dynamo are no longer the main threat. Top of the table stand Metalist Kharkiv, with nine wins and two draws from 11 games, including a 1-1 draw at the Donbass Arena, and then come Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, who were convincing 3-1 winners over Shakhtar at the end of August. The league campaign has become a struggle rather than a procession.
This was always going to be a season of transition for Shakhtar, who sold Fernandinho and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the summer, having already lost Willian in January. No side can expect to lose three of their biggest talents and go on as though nothing has happened; but what has caused disquiet in Donetsk is that the struggles have come not in Europe but domestically. Shakhtar began their Champions League campaign with a slightly fortuitous 2-0 win away to Real Sociedad, but if they could take advantage of United's indifferent form in a packed Donbass Arena on Wednesday, they would be in control of the group.
As has been their policy for a decade, Shakhtar looked to South America to replace the talent they moved on. Four Brazilians arrived, taking the total number to have played for Shakhtar since Matuzalém arrived in 2004 to 23 (not including Eduardo, who was born in Brazil but is a naturalised Croatian and Marcelo Moreno, who is Bolivian but has a Brazilian father). The most vaunted of the four is probably the 21-year-old forward Bernard, who has already won seven caps for Brazil and was linked with Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal in the summer, but he has started a single game so far. Fred, a gifted 20-year-old midfielder, is already a fixture; Lucas Fernando has started only one game – at 21, he could be the long-term replacement for Fernandinho; and the 21-year-old forward Wellington Nem, who hasn't started a Shakhtar game yet, was a key figure in Fluminense's title triumph last season.
One of Shakhtar's strengths is that they don't rush players to integrate. Douglas Costa was signed in 2009, but it's only this season, at 23, that he has really become a regular. In a sense, this is a modern version of the old Liverpool policy under Bob Paisley of buying promise and then leaving it in the reserves for six months to learn the club's methods. "It is clear that the newcomers are talented players," said Lucescu, who last week became the longest serving coach in Shakhtar's history. "But when two or three of them go out in the starting lineup, our game goes a bit wrong. We're waiting. Naturally, we need patience."
Facundo "Chucky" Ferreyra, an unusual, awkward centre-forward who flickered and frustrated at Banfield for years – although he is still only 22 – before exploding with 16 goals in 18 games last season as Vélez Sarsfield won the Torneo Inicial, is another summer recruit who has seen limited action, starting two games so far. "They come," Lucescu said, "because they see the set-up here and because I convince them." He is charismatic, a gifted linguist – he speaks at least seven languages with a degree of fluency – and is beloved.
I visited Shakhtar's extraordinary training complex – it features an aviary and fishing lakes to help keep players entertained, as well as all the usual gyms, pitches and training equipment – in 2007. Although Lucescu, now 68, is a hugely entertaining man to interview – he sees conspiracies everywhere and spent a long time pitying me for the lack of flavour in English tomatoes – the most memorable moment came as I walked with Lucescu from the canteen where we'd had lunch to an office where we had coffee. We passed through a room in which three young Brazilians were lounging watching a recording of a Brazilian league match. Immediately they began talking to him, desperate to describe an incident that had happened a few minutes earlier. He smiled and, with avuncular concern, promised to come back and watch it later. Given the cynicism that pervades so much of football, it was a surprising and touching moment; Lucescu as favourite teacher, a man who loves his subject and can inspire that love in others.
One Brazilian begets another. When Douglas Costa was contemplating his options, he rang Willian and Luiz Adriano, both of them from his home state of Porto Alegre, to seek their advice. They described a thriving Brazilian community. Ukraine may not be much like western Europe, but Shakhtar, with their first-rate facilities, are an ideal stepping stone. Young Brazilians know they are going to a club who will give them a chance and at which the process of adaptation will be easier than almost anywhere else.
Whether that is good for Ukrainian football is another matter; Shakhtar do little to develop local talent, but their policy has seen them topple Dynamo and become a major European force. Beating United and managing this transition would be a major step to confirming their development can continue for the long-term.
Shakhtar's shape is relatively easy to predict; the personnel less so. After abandoning the diamond, Lucescu has been a firm devotee of 4-2-3-1, which probably means Fernando operating alongside the dogged Czech Tomas Hubschman at the back of midfield. "It's a dynamic way of playing," Lucescu told the latest issue of Champions magazine. "The layout on the pitch is valid at the start of the game – after that things change. For me, the leader on the pitch is whoever has the ball. He decides how to play."
Luiz Adriano will almost certainly be the lone striker and it would be a major surprise if Alex Teixeira, scorer of both goals in San Sebastián, did not operate behind him. On the evidence of United's past two league games, his willingness to run at defenders could be a major threat. The wide positions are less clear with Lucescu to perm two from Taison, Douglas Costa and Bernard. What is certain, though, is that the five most attacking players will, once again, be Brazilian.