Ukraine’s Brazilian-born sensation Marlos has starred for Shakhtar Donetsk in a Champions League run that could see them reach the quarter-finals for only the second time when they go to Roma on Tuesday.
The 29-year-old attacking midfielder’s silky dribbling could also make an integral part of his adopted country Ukraine’s hopes of returning to the forefront of the international scene after failing to qualify for the World Cup in Russia.
A native of southern Brazil, Marlos moved to Ukraine in 2012 and became a citizen last year.
The Ukrainian player of the year for two successive seasons is the engine of a flamboyant Shakhtar side that features an eye-popping eight additional Brazilians and two Argentines.
Shakhtar edged out the Italians 2-1 at home in Kharkiv in the first leg of their last-16 encounter last month, meaning they head to the Stadio Olimpico in the driving seat.
They are also on course to retain their domestic title despite being based in three different cities over the past two years due to the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Shakhtar’s Portuguese coach Paulo Fonseca has admitted that Marlos is vital to his side, describing him as “magical”.
Certainly, having a coach who speaks Portugese helps Marlos and the Brazilians gel into an attacking unit that has flourished in the Champions League.
Shakhtar beat Manchester City at home in the group stage and won away at Dutch champions Feyenoord despite finishing the game with 10 men.
Marlos was named February’s player of the month in Ukraine after scoring four goals and laying on three assists in three matches, leaving Shakhtar sitting pretty atop the table.
“To me, team achievements are much more important,” Marlos said after receiving the award.
Marlos began his career at Coritiba in his native Brazil, helping them win promotion before moving to giants Sao Paulo in 2009.
That was where he started to make a name for himself, regularly popping up with important goals. After moving to Ukraine Marlos settled quickly and first voiced an interest in playing for the national team in 2016 as the struggling country scouted round for help.
“If this happens, it will be my gift to Ukrainians for being so welcoming,” Marlos said at the time.
That wish came true in September when he was granted Ukrainian citizenship. It was a decision that endeared him to Ukrainians – used to players looking for work elsewhere because of four years of armed conflict in the east and hard times all around.
The news was reported back in Brazil, although there was never any suggestion that he had the potential to play for the country of his birth. Not that Ukrainians minded.
We’ve arrived in the Eternal City! 🇮🇹 Ciao, Roma!
— FC SHAKHTAR ENGLISH (@FCShakhtar_eng) March 12, 2018
“In this difficult time for Ukraine, many athletes leave, adopting the citizenship of other countries,” said Ukraine coach and former AC Milan great Andriy Shevchenko.
“But Marlos, on the contrary, tied his future to our state. It would have been foolish not to pick such a player.”
He made his debut against Kosovo in a World Cup qualifier that Ukraine won, although they missed out on a place in Russia, finishing third in their group behind Iceland and Croatia.
Marlos has found the net 40 times in 158 appearances for Shakhtar and should be an enticing option for Ukraine for years to come.
And his belief in both club and adopted country has helped Shakhtar as they look to return to the quarter-finals, where they were well beaten by eventual winners Barcelona in 2011.
“We are confident that we will be able to get the result we need in Rome,” Marlos said.
Nothing could separate the teams on the pitch in Spain three weeks ago as a goalless draw was recorded. United played defensively that day, but now know a win is required to make the quarter-finals for the first time since 2013/14.
For Sevilla, they will be desperate to improve a record of three defeats from three ties at this stage of the competition. They have not won on six trips to England, yet a score draw will be enough to send them through without penalties.
With much at stake, here we take a look at three key battles which could go a long way in deciding the outcome.
ROMELU LUKAKU V SIMON KJAER
It was not only the Liverpool fans who would have been left wincing when watching United’s weekend win.
Belgium forward Romelu Lukaku did not get on the score sheet, but the bullying treatment he handed out to Croatia centre-back Dejan Lovren was key to Mourinho’s monster gameplan.
Denmark’s Simon Kjaer should be tasked with handling United’s bulldozing No9 in midweek. The 28-year-old missed the scoreless opening leg through injury, but returned for the 1-0 La Liga victory at lowly Malaga.
Including this fixture, Sevilla have kept two clean sheets from three since his comeback.
Lukaku also failed to trouble Clement Lenglet and Gabriel Mercado in the opener. He had two off-target shots, was dispossessed twice and had only 38 touches – the second lowest of any starter from his side.
Yet since that day, the £75 million summer buy scored twice and been terrific in victories against former club Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Liverpool.
If this form continues, Kjaer could crack.
SCOTT McTOMINAY V EVER BANEGA
The selection of the now Scotland call-up was the big talking point ahead of the first leg.
France superstar Paul Pogba was dropped to the bench, with Mourinho putting faith in his callow 21-year-old defensive midfielder. The Portuguese said this was with a view to lessening the influence of Argentina creator Ever Banega.
A lack of goals from either side seems to show this task was completed successfully. Yet Banega led the way for Sevilla with 10 key passes, 105 passes, 13 crosses, five accurate crosses, 12 long balls and 135 touches.
It was only profligate finishing from team-mates such as Colombia forward Luis Muriel which prevented this display being labelled as a masterclass.
In the shows of character that have defined McTominay’s nascent United career, he’s not been chastened by that night in Andalusia.
He was superb on Saturday against Liverpool, helping dominate the likes of Germany’s Emre Can. A respectable pass accuracy of 85.7 per cent was recorded, he was fouled a joint-high three times plus he made four tackles and two interceptions.
Reaching this standard is a must for McTominay once again. Banega cannot be afforded so much space a second time.
ERIC BAILLY V LUIS MURIEL
The fact that the opener contained no goals owed much to the woeful finishing of Muriel.
The 26-year-old ex-Udinese and Sampdoria attacker had six of Sevilla’s 25 attempts on goal. In particular, a header in first-half injury time was acrobatically saved by David De Gea – but the Spain No1 should have been given no chance to utilise his incredible reflexes.
A subsequent first start since November handed out to outstanding Ivory Coast centre-back Bailly should make Muriel further rue this moment of weakness.
Bailly scored an ungainly own goal against Liverpool. Otherwise, you’d never have known he’d been out for so long.
He led the way with six interceptions and supported partner Chris Smalling with seven clearances.
His all-action style and experience of La Liga with Villarreal should mean he relishes this tie.
Also, eight clean sheets have been kept this term during his 12 appearances.
Bailly provides even more backbone to Mourinho’s mean machine.
Chris Smalling is often seen as a comedic figure around Old Trafford, a subject for derision and fodder for bar room bickering.
This criticism is not without merit, with Manchester United fans right to feel they are sometimes watching a comedy of errors when Smalling is in the side.
Defeat to Newcastle a few weeks ago and the 2-2 draw with Leicester at the end of 2017 stand out for Red Devils fans.
Smalling was booked for diving against the Magpies a month ago which in turn led to Matt Ritchie’s winner.
The 28-year-old injured his groin towards the end of the 2-2 draw with the Foxes two days before Christmas but was sent back on as Jose Mourinho had made all three of his substitutions – he was subsequently at fault as Harry Maguire ghosted in to equalise for the 10-man hosts.
Smalling was slammed. In fact, whenever he makes a mistake, he receives significant abuse – most of it from his own fans.
Ironically, his more impressive displays are buried, while his consistency this season has gone almost totally unnoticed.
After suffering the ignominy of that yellow card against Newcastle, he remained in the spotlight rather than being withdrawn to the sanctuary of the shadows by Mourinho. And he’s been excellent in a subsequent unbeaten five match run, including four wins, against Huddersfield, Sevilla, Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Liverpool.
In that sequence, a crucial period of the season, United have reached the FA Cup quarter-finals, are favourites to reach the last eight of the Champions League and have beaten two of their biggest rivals to all but guarantee a top-four Premier League finish.
Smalling has been the Red Devils’ only ever present centre-back during this vital run. He’s gone from sinner to saint, yet he’s unlikely to ever get the credit he deserves.
Much of that is down to the fact he’s struggled for consistency throughout his United career, while he’ll never be remembered as one of the elite players at his position.
But you only have to look at his stats this season to see how much he stands out.
Smalling ranks first among Premier League top six sides’ centre-backs for clearances (21st overall), second in shots blocked (13th overall), third for interceptions (10th overall), fourth in aerial duels won (16th overall) and seventh in tackles (18th overall).
In a United defence that has lacked a true identity and a cohesive central partnership all season, and relied heavily upon David De Gea’s brilliance, Smalling has been the standout.
He may never be revered among the ilk of Franco Baresi or Franz Beckenbauer. He’s won’t ever be mentioned in the same breath as celebrated club heroes Rio Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidic.
Yet when you consider Smalling rose from the non-league ranks with Maidstone United to England’s elite, can he really be condemned for the fact he’s never realistically going to be part of a discussion about world-class defenders?
It seems he will be in the discussion, however, between England manager Gareth Southgate and his coaching staff when they come to select a squad for upcoming friendlies with the Netherlands and Italy.
It’s been suggested Southgate will recall Smalling after a commanding display in victory against Liverpool on Saturday and silencing an attack that has cut teams to shreds this season – and particularly keeping Player of the Year in waiting Mohamed Salah deathly quiet.
He’s a continuous source of hilarity for fans of other clubs, even his own.
Yet if Smalling’s form continues and is deservedly rewarded with a place in England’s 23-man squad for this summer’s World Cup, it will be he who laughs last.