Shakhtar Donetsk coach Mircea Lucescu has won plenty of trophies in his time – league titles with five different clubs, including the last four in Ukraine – but one still has pride of place at his home in Romania.
He won it in February 1970, when he was 24 years old and part of a Romania squad that went on tour to Brazil. Newspaper O Globo had voted Lucescu player of the tournament after Romania had taken on Flamengo, Vasco da Gama and Argentine side Independiente at the Maracana.
Lucescu fell in love with Brazil two years earlier, when he spent a month travelling the country with his national team. “For a young player like me, coming from Romania to a country like that, you can only imagine the astonishment and wonder I felt,” he remembered.
“In the stadiums, each group of supporters danced to the rhythm of samba whenever their team had the ball and attacked. And I discovered the essence of every Brazilian: football, samba, beach and sex – and I understood why this was enough for them to live happily.”
While the biggest football story of this summer in Brazil focused on Confederations Cup hero Neymar and his move to Barcelona, Lucescu has ensured that Brazil’s future stars are also in good hands. Last season, his side, which had four Brazilians in attacking positions, helped eliminate reigning champions Chelsea in the group stage.
This season, the names are different but the rhythm looks to be the same: Fernandinho has left for Manchester City, Willian for Chelsea, Dentinho for Besiktas and Henryk Mkhitaryan (okay, he’s Armenian but he did spend four months at Sao Paulo when he was 17) to Borussia Dortmund.
In their places, Shakhtar have signed Bernard (from Atletico), already starring on the wing, Fred (Internacional), with two goals to his name in his first five games, Fernando, a regular call-up by coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, as well as Taison back in January. Only Wellington, the midfielder from Fluminense, is likely to start from the bench.
Shakhtar survived a tough Champions League group last year and were no luckier this time around; they will face Manchester United, Bayer Leverkusen and Real Sociedad, whose coach Jagoba Arrasate, 35, is not only the youngest in the competition, but also is in his first season as a top-flight manager. Arrasate will make his United counterpart David Moyes look positively brimming with Champions League experience.
Moyes coached Everton in two qualifying play-off games against Villarreal back in 2005 – when his coaching opponent was Manuel Pellegrini. The Chilean is now at Manchester City, whose run of nightmare groups looks to be over after being drawn to face Bayern Munich, CSKA Moscow and Viktoria Plzen,
Instead, the ‘Group of Death’ tags belongs to Group F, where Arsenal are reunited with Marseille and Borussia Dortmund, both group opponents in 2011-12, but instead of Olympiacos as the fourth team, they will face Napoli, coached by Rafa Benitez and a dangerous outsider in the competition. Another point of concern for Arsenal: while they are arguably a weaker side than their 2011 version, Marseille – who have kept their best talent (the likes of Steve Mandanda, Nicolas Nkoulou and Mathieu Valbuena) and added to it cleverly this summer with Dmitri Payet, Benjamin Mendy and Gianluca Imbula – and Borussia Dortmund, runners-up last year, most definitely are stronger.
There are other enticing reunions – between Real Madrid coaching duo Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane and their former club Juventus, between Porto and Zenit St Petersburg and, for the third straight season, AC Milan and Barcelona – and for all the talk of Uefa’s unfair co-efficient system, the draw has once again conjured up some fascinating matches and a few groups that will see some big-name casualties. Once again, though, Shakhtar and Lucescu should be safe.