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Taras-Guardsman: how Stepanenko got into Shakhtar’s historic top ten

The ill-fated match with Dynamo became personally significant for Taras Stepanenko: he allowed Shakhtar’s defensive player to enter the top ten of the club’s guards. “Terrikon” recalls how it all began and how it all turned out …

Taras Nikolaevich Stepanenko was born in the town of Velikaya Novoselka, Donetsk region, but started his career in Zaporozhye – first in the youth “Torpedo”, then in the adult “Metallurgist”. At the age of 20, he had already become the most important element of the team – so key that he could not stay there for long. The views of the functionaries of more ambitious clubs turned to him, and in 2010 Taras moved to Donetsk. As it turned out – forever. Well, at least 11 years, which is an eternity by football standards.

Not to say that he immediately fit into the squad of the champion of Ukraine, but he clearly did not dry up on the bench either. In UPL matches, he appeared 15 times (and 14 of them – in the starting lineup). In addition, he played twice in the Cup and once in the country’s Super Cup. But the most important thing is that he reached a new, unprecedented level for himself, having taken part in 2 matches of the Champions League. Moreover – in one of them he scored his first European goal. It was a trip to Belgrade, where the Pitmen defeated Partizan 3: 0.

In a word, Taras immediately became a noticeable figure in the Donetsk team, and somehow immediately won the fans’ sympathy. But a smooth career development did not work out. He did not become Mircea Lucescu’s favorite, and even with Fernandinho alive, it was not easy for him to take the place on the field where he could realize his skills and abilities with the greatest effect. As a result, he played less in the following seasons: in 2011/12 – 12 matches in all tournaments (none in the Champions League group stage), in 2012/13 – 25 (3 of them in the Champions League and 3 in the National Cup ). If everything developed at such a pace, Stepanenko would not be among the “guards” of “Shakhtar”.

But indeed, Fernandinho’s departure played into his hands. The position for which Lucescu could not pick up any worthy Brazilian was cleared. And gradually Stepanenko turned into the main “defensive player” of the team. He proved to be a thoughtful player, able to analyze and draw the right conclusions from his own mistakes. He listened carefully to the coach’s recommendations and tried not to pay attention to his offensive decisions (which often happened at first). All this, in the end, led to an increase in his personal class, on the one hand, and on the other, to the fact that Lucescu eventually recognized him as “his”.

Starting from the 2014/15 season, Taras is reaching grandmaster performance. That season, he played 35 matches in all tournaments, having spent almost 2,000 minutes on the field in the Ukrainian championship. A year later, he established his new achievement – 40 matches. The change of the coach did not change anything either. Paulo Fonseca was not his own enemy to neglect the services of such a combative, reliable and reputable player. The first season under the leadership of the Portuguese allowed Stepanenko to establish a new personal best – 42 matches in all tournaments.

It was already difficult to surpass this, although Stepanenko played a lot further. In the 2017/18 season, he has 38 matches in all tournaments, 36 in 2018/19, and 37 in 2019/20. Since the beginning of this season, he has played 21 matches on all Shakhtar’s fronts. This means that he will end up with the worst performance in the last 8 years, but there are, of course, reasons for this. In the fall, Taras was among the group of Shakhtar players who contracted the coronavirus. And later, at the end of February, he received a knee injury that knocked him out of action for a month. If not for this, it is unlikely that he would have played less than the standard 30 matches in a season.

By the way, it turned out to be the second worst injury in his career – 33 days offside. Actually, fate took care of him, serious injuries were bypassed. Only last season there was an even more serious problem – Taras dropped out of the team for 34 days, and at about the same time, in early spring. Well, there was also a 25-day recovery from a hip injury in the summer of 2011.

Stepanenko’s most striking season in terms of the number of matches in the Premier League is 2016/17. Then he practically did not miss Shakhtar’s games. He was noted 28 times in the championship (the tournament consisted of 32 matches), played both matches of the Champions League qualification (memorable fiasco with Young Boys), 6 out of 8 matches of the Europa League, added 3 games in the Ukrainian Cup and 1 in the Super Cup.

Thus, Stepanenko is now in the asset – 332 matches, he shares 10-11th places with Igor Petrov in the list of “guardsmen” of the club. Already this season, it has every chance to overtake Viktor Grachev (334). In the next, if he plays at least 25 times, he will bypass several at once – Valery Yaremchenko (337), Valery Rudakov (341), Dmitry Shutkov (347). In another year, he can overtake Yuri Degterev (379) and take 5th place in the honorary list. It will be more difficult further. Sergei Yashchenko, who is in 4th place, has 444 games. The distance between him and Stepanenko is 102 fights. It’s 4 seasons or so. For 31-year-old Taras – the plan is quite realistic. But only life will show how realistic it is. We found ourselves in such a turbulent world that it is better not to draw “long” perspectives …