How Premier League stars Fernandinho and Willian have come a long way since their Shakhtar Donetsk days

On Saturday evening Chelsea and Manchester City will clash at Stamford Bridge, with Donetsk old boys Fernandinho and Willian both likely to feature

Yaroslav Druziuk
Friday 29 September 2017 13:21 BST
Both Fernandinho and Willian have come a long way
Both Fernandinho and Willian have come a long way (Getty)

When Willian and Fernandinho meet at Stamford Bridge on Saturday evening, they will be representing two of the Premier League’s richest teams and two of the favourites for this season’s title. But the pair have come a long way from when they first met 10 years ago, as two young Brazilians trying to make their way in Ukraine with Shakhtar Donetsk.

“I believe it was in Donetsk where Willian and I first met,” Igor Duljaj tells The Independent. The former Serbia international played for Shakhtar with the Brazilians for years. Happy times, as he now describes it.

Duljaj has now finished his playing career and is now an assistant coach with Shakhtar, who played at Manchester City this week and lost 2-0. It has been a difficult few years for the club, who because of the three-year war waged by Russia in eastern part of Ukraine, moved to Kyiv. They played home matches in Lviv in the western corner of Ukraine, and are now in Kharkiv in north east Ukraine.

At the same time Donbas Arena, the first five-star football arena in eastern Europe, has suffered numerous shellings. In February 2017 Russia-backed militants occupied the humanitarian help office at the stadium. The club’s stance is that it will return to its home city only when Ukraine will take back control over Donetsk.

“Fernandinho and Willian still support Shakhtar,” says Shakhtar captain Darijo Srna. “They share the dream to play at Donbas Arena once again. I’m positive that we will play in Donetsk together once again, even if it is just a friendly we are talking about.”

Fernandinho and Willian’s debt to Shakhtar is clear. It was difficult for Willian when he first arrived at Shakhtar 10 years ago. He was 18 years old, had made no more than 20 appearances for Corinthians but was told to Shakhtar for a fee of €14million, meaning high expectations.

““It wasn’t easy for him, confidence-wise,” says Duljaj. “It must have been really hard for him, with the cultural shock and no relatives around, it sure was the same for me when I came here.”

It wasn't easy for Willian when he arrived in Donetsk
It wasn't easy for Willian when he arrived in Donetsk (Getty)

Fernandino’s story was slightly different. He was 20 when he left Brazil for Ukraine, and did so for half the fee that Willian cost. “He was so thin!”, was Duljaj’s first impression of the young midfielder. “Nevertheless they both needed time to adapt,” remembers Srna.

But Shakhtar gave first Fernandinho then Willian the perfect chance to cut their teeth in European football. “The thing about the club”, explains Duljaj, “is that they wait for players to arrive. Top clubs in Europe, they want finished articles, and now. But Shakhtar understands that they have to help the youngsters to flourish.”

It all worked perfectly underneath manager Mircea Lucescu. “It is all about their system,” says Duljaj. “It all goes back to the scouting department, they try and identify the players to go with the team’s style of play. There was this plan to use Ukrainian players in defensive positions and Brazilians in attack. After the success we had, you can say it paid off.”

Fernandinho adjusted quickly to his new surroundings
Fernandinho adjusted quickly to his new surroundings (Getty)

Fernandinho and Willian won every trophy there was in Ukraine but really put themselves on the map with the 2009 UEFA Cup. The victory against Werder Bremen side marked the highest point in Shakhtar’s history. Like Srna and Duljaj, the Brazilian duo were on pitch that day. “It’s clear that

Premier League level is beyond comparison with the Ukrainian championship,” says Duljaj, “and so it was the European games where we were really tested.”

“These guys were always destined to succeed at the highest level”, Duljaj says. Srna adds that both Fernandinho and Willian’s potential was evident from the first training session. “They both are great leaders and great players”, he says. “It’s no wonder Ferna and Willy play for the best two teams in England now.”

The Ukrainians won the Uefa Cup in 2009
The Ukrainians won the Uefa Cup in 2009 (Getty)

“Boy, they are tremendous talents,” agrees Duljaj. He says the only player he thinks can beat Willian at sprinting is another Shakhtar alumni Douglas Costa, now of Juventus. “They are ridiculously quick,” he says.

“Fernandinho is more of a workaholic,” says Duljaj, who also points to his versatility as what makes him stand out. “It’s not a surprise to me that he got along with Guardiola that well. Every coach would like to have this soldier of a player, ready to play wherever he is needed. I remember he started on the right wing at Shakhtar, then he played more centrally. Eventually he made the central midfield position his own.” And what about the ten positions Guardiola joked Fernandinho could play in? “That’s about right”, laughs Duljaj.

Who will come out on top?
Who will come out on top? (Getty)

It is Srna who was the closest friend to Fernandinho during his time at Shakhtar. “Our families practically lived together,” he says. “It’s both the good times and the bad times that I remember. There was this moment when Ferna broke his leg and missed a year or so. The whole club, and the whole of our family showed him the support he needed. And he came back even stronger.”

“I still see the guys every now and then when I travel to London,” says Srna. He says it was in February last year that he last saw Fernandinho. They met briefly in Ukraine when Manchester City was playing Dynamo Kyiv in Champions League. He still gets season greetings from the Brazilians though. “They are great people,” he says, “so calm, always so nice to speak to.”

So where do Srna’s loyalties lie when one faces the other? “Oh dear, they are my friends, I can’t possibly choose which team to support”, he says. “It’s the weaker side that I tend to support on occasions like this,” says Duljaj. “But that is going to be a match of two extremely talented teams.”

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