In the historical sense, particularly in this competition, Roma and Shakhtar Donetsk aren’t strangers, having met four times in the Champions League, with the most recent tilt coming in 2011, but in the here and now, they might as well be complete strangers. The Roma Donetsk thought they were getting after the group stage has changed twice now—with EDF’s 4-3-3 that conquered Chelsea shifting to the more en vogue 4-2-3-1, while Donetsk has only played one match in the past two and a half months thanks to the peculiarities of Ukrainian football schedules.
And it’s that last point that should have Eusebio Di Francesco and Roma most worried. Has that two month lag time given their opponents an extreme layer of rust or insight? No doubt they’ve been able to dissect Roma every which way but loose, but the intensity on the training ground is no match for the Round of 16 in the Champions League.
Shakhtar Donetsk v. Roma: February 21, 20:45 CET/2:45 EST, Metalist Stadium, Kharkiv
Point being, this match will be incredibly difficult to predict, but let’s give it a shot anyway, shall we?
Just Who Are Shakhtar Donetsk?
Fresh off their winter break, Donetsk, who are colloquially referred to as The Miners, The Moles or The Pitmen, which I think were three of the original Fellowship members, sit in first place in the Ukraine’s Premier League, having just dusted off Chernomorets Odessa 5-0 last week, thanks to stellar turns from Facundo Ferreyra and Marlos, who combined for four of those five goals.
Donetsk are managed by Paulo Fonseca, who has been leading the club since 2016. Fonseca’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation has amassed a league-leading 43 goals while sporting a +25 goal differential. Spurring that attack is the aforementioned duo of Marlos and Ferreyra, who have teamed up to score 25 of Donetsk’s league goals, and have been equally effective during the club’s Champions League campaign, combining with their fellow Brazilian, Bernard, to pace the club with seven total goals.
Speaking of which, Donetsk, despite being forced from their normal home stadium thanks to the current political atmosphere in Ukraine, have held serve in Kharkiv, winning all three of their home group fixtures. All told, Donetsk have won six of their last fourteen home matches in the competition, including a win over Napoli.
So, combine their attacking formation, led by a trio of productive Brazilians, the cold weather (temps will be below freezing at kickoff) and the fact that Shakhtar has had a two-month lead-in for this match, and we may be looking at Roma’s toughest fixture of this competition.
So, how will EDF far north of the wall?
Eastbound but Hopefully not Down
Roma have had a bit of an up and down history versus Ukrainian sides, with two wins against Kiev being countered by their less than stellar record against Donetsk, one win and three losses. However, lest you forgot, Roma did win their group thanks in large part to their road record, where they earned four of a possible nine points.
But all of that is merely prologue, what matters most is Roma’s current form, which is, level of opponents and all, quite scintillating. Fueled by the emergence of Cengiz Ünder and the steady as always backline, Roma has ripped off three-straight victories, injecting the side with a desperately needed dose of confidence.
While it may be coincidental, the switch to the 4-2-3-1 has prompted the renewed Roma we’ve seen over the past three weeks. A huge part of that formations success is, of course, the performance of the fullbacks. Whether they’re providing additional width or defensive cover, they’re an integral part of that tactical framework. While Aleksandar Kolarov received some much needed rest last week, the same cannot be said for Alessandro Florenzi, who is now, as we discussed earlier today, a doubt for this match due to some intestinal distress. All of which means we may see Bruno Peres log significant minutes in the club’s most important match to date.
Peres’ inclusion will be based purely on need, the same cannot be said for the midfield or left wing spot. Although the 4-2-3-1 has only been around a few weeks, we’ve seen a few, subtle variants therein. Last week against Udinese, EDF opted for Lorenzo Pellegrini and Daniele De Rossi in midfield, and while the older Roman played pretty well, the same cannot be said for Pellegrini, who has suffered through several bouts of inconsistency this season. If EDF decides to pull the younger Roman, look for Kevin Strootman to slot in next to DDR.
With Edin Dzeko leading the line supported by Radja Nainggolan and Ünder split to the right, the left flank remains up in the air. Last week against Udinese, Stephan El Shaarawy earned the start, and on any other night may have had two goals, but narrowly missed one attempt by a matter of inches and completely scuppered the second, leading EDF to pull him off for Perotti with 20 minutes left to play. Perotti was solid enough in his cameo, scoring the capper in Roma’s 2-0 victory.
Each man comes with caveats, so it will be interesting to see which EDF prefers: El Shaarawy’s explosiveness or Perotti’s sneaky playmaking. With Donetsk firmly focused on Ünder, this selection could mean the difference between points won and points dropped.
The external factors in this match are about as daunting as they come, but make no mistake, Roma’s passage to the quarterfinals will be determined tomorrow.