After winning one of the toughest groups in this year’s Champions League, Roma were paired against the Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk. While the Giallorossi were undoubtedly delighted to avoid powerhouses like Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, Shakhtar are still a very serious opponent, which Roma cannot afford to underestimate. But what can Eusebio Di Francesco’s men expect from the Ukrainians?
Despite Roma’s impressive displays in the competition this term, Shakhtar are definitely not scared by the Giallorossi, as they already eliminated Napoli by finishing second in their group only behind a formidable Manchester City side. Roma have never reallyhad a reputation as world-beaters on the Continent, but eliminating another Italian team would undoubtedly boost Shakhtar’s confidence.
Confidence is the biggest difference that Paulo Fonseca was able to insert in the side since he was appointed in 2016, as the Portuguese ended Dynamo Kiev’s streak of two consecutive league titles. Roma should be wary of Shakhtar’s Brazilian quartet of Bernard, Fred, Marlos and Taison, as their speed, skills and cohesion could be a handful for any defence, especially if given the space.
Shakhtar are also good at creating spaces with their high aggressive press, which is one of their main strengths, especially at home. The Ukrainians boast a perfect home record in the Champions League this term, so Roma should be extremely careful in the first leg. Defeating three extremely aggressive and attacking-minded sides like Napoli, Feyenoord and Manchester City could probably give Di Francesco a hint on how Roma should approach the game.
The Giallorossi should be extremely careful when playing from the back, as, just like Maurizio Sarri learned the hard way, the Ukrainians are deadly when it comes to taking advantage of mistakes in the opposition’s half. This means that Roma should be patient, move the ball fast and avoid giving it away cheaply, as Shakhtar’s top goalscorer Facundo Ferreyra possesses the predator instinct to punish any mistakes.
Cutting off the support of the hosts’ Argentinian attacker is what Roma should be aiming for, which means that Radja Nainggolan, Kevin Strootman and Daniele De Rossi will have the task to close out Shakhtar’s midfield. Playing an occasional long ball towards Edin Dzeko will definitely be something that might help Roma’s cause, as the Bosnian is the main weapon, which could exploit Shakhtar’s biggest weakness - their defence.
The Ukrainians are yet to keep a clean sheet in the competition this season and have conceded an average of 1.5 goals per game, so Roma must try to scorea precious away goal.
Physicality is another aspect of the game which Roma could exploit, as the midfield might not be as skillful or pacey as Shakhtar’s, but the Giallorossi should be able to harass the hosts and not allow any breathing room to their Brazilian players. However, this could prove to be a risky approach, considering De Rossi’s discipline history and the way he switches off sometimes, so the Roma captain should try not to cross the line with his trademark tackles.
There is another way in which Roma could exploit their physicality, as Shakhtar’s two central defenders Ivan Ordets and Yaroslav Rakitskiy are 1.80m and 1.94m tall, which means that Roma could create a physical mismatch. Edin Dzeko is 1.93m tall, so if Roma’s faster and more technically gifted players like Cengiz Under, Diego Perotti or Stephan El Shaarawy manage to occupy Rakitskiy, who is the slower of the two, Dzeko will be up against Ordets and be able to use his massive 13 cm height advantage.
The first leg of the clash could be crucial, as at home Shakhtar are a formidable team that plays an attacking and aggressive style of football. If the Ukranians manage to emerge victorious from the first game in Kharkiv, Roma’s task will become very tough. However, Roma’s superiority in the defensive and physical aspect of the game mean that Di Francesco’s men are slight favorites to qualify.
A good result in Ukraine would be key for the outcome, so let’s hope that Roma learned from Napoli’s mistakes.