Bundled up and riding high on their three match domestic winning streak, Roma entered Kharkiv with a purpose, dictate the temp and location of play, get a goal and get out of Dodge. Of course that task was boosted by the return of Alessandro Florenzi, who recovered quickly enough from the flu to resume his right back spot. Outside of Ale, it was business as usual for Eusebio Di Francesco’s newly minted 4-2-3-1, save one odd exclusion. While many expected Diego Perotti to start this match, leaving Stephan El Shaarawy completely out of the matchday squad was a bit puzzling.
Nevertheless, Roma were the aggressor from the word go, pushing the pace of play and leaving the match wide open. With Cengiz Ünder and Perotti bombing down the flanks, the order of the day was clear: stretch play at the back, particularly down the left where Perotti and Kolarov combined for over 80 touches in the first half, cut in and feed it to Dzeko.
The Bosnian Batistuta had three shots in the first half, two of which were agonizingly close to going in—the first, an ad hoc scrum in front of the goal was snuffed out by a flail of the keeper’s leg, while the second was just good old fashion 2016 Dzeko, a complete flub of a clear cut chance.
For awhile there it looked like Roma would walk away frustrated, but their focus on Dzeko did pay off, though not the way they planned...
Cengiz Under: 41st Minute
GOOOOAAAAALLLLL!!!! Yes, it is that man AGAIN!!! CENGIZ #UNDER!!! 0-1 | 41' #ShakhtarRomapic.twitter.com/udBGrwiJnV— SerieAchannel (@SerieAchannel) February 21, 2018
After nearly 40 minutes of trying to pump the ball into Dzeko, primarily through Diego Perotti or Aleksandar Kolarov on the left, that maneuver finally paid dividends, albeit indirectly. Once Perotti found Dzeko at the point of the attack, the Shakhtar defense completely collapsed on him, but you’ll notice how he created just enough space and rather than immediately playing it laterally, Dzeko wisely waited a beat while Ünder broke for the endline, where Dzeko found him in stride. From there Ünder took a clever little touch to switch the ball to his left foot, where he had a far easier shot on goal.
For much of the first half, it looked like it was the same song and dance we saw through much of January—lots of chances, very little pay off. Roma did whatever they wanted in possession, showing a proclivity towards attacking through Perotti and Kolarov, creating chances at will and earning nearly 10 corners in the first half alone, but until that Ünder strike, it all looked like it was going for naught.
But that’s the most amazing part of Ünder’s emergence, he just seems to have a knack for showing up in the big minutes, be it 44 seconds into the match of 41 minutes. Roma were able to coast into halftime without issue, but would this one-goal margin hold?
No. No it would not.
Rather than pressing from the get go, as they did to much success in the first half, Roma sauntered around like the match was won, which promptly bit them in the ass.
Facundo Ferreyra: 52nd Minute
Donetsk was able to unbuckle Roma’s defense, covering nearly two thirds of the pitch, in a matter of a couple moves, finding Ferreyra wide open down the flank—funny that Florenzi’s attempt to bicycle the ball out of the air at midfield didn’t work—with Kostas Manolas hot in pursuit. Credit Manolas with hustling, and he very nearly dispossessed him, and actually overtook him, but Ferreyra was able to skirt around him and put it home.
It was just a pitiful display from Roma, who came out at halftime completely flat, seemingly abandoning what worked for them in the first 45 minutes. Still, a 1-1 aggregate scoreline with the away goal advantage is hardly the worse case scenario, but that wouldn’t last long.
Fred: 71st Minute
Fa Fred!pic.twitter.com/pCSu3v265z #ShakhtarRoma— Ivan Zazzaroni (@zazzatweet) February 21, 2018
I mean, wow. What can you say about that one? There was literally no chance in hell Alisson, as great as he is, was going to save that one. Fred just pulled this one straight out of FIFA, and not even regular FIFA, like, FIFA Street. That thing was perfect. Though one has to wonder if all the hullabaloo before the kick enabled Fred to pull this one off, almost like icing an NFL kicker before a big field goal, but, you know, opposite.
As is often the case, with Roma trailing and EDF fresh out of options and unable to adjust on the fly, it’s up to Alisson to save Roma’s ass, which he did in no short order, stoning Donetsk in succession.
#Alisson with some clutch saves! My word. 2-1 | 81' #ShakhtarRoma pic.twitter.com/7COhVdHwDK— SerieAchannel (@SerieAchannel) February 21, 2018
#Alisson's other save today, the goalie has fought hard, yet Shakhtar looking good 2-1 up. 85' #ShakhtarRomapic.twitter.com/wFsl5ZfS7u— SerieAchannel (@SerieAchannel) February 21, 2018
Heading into the second leg down on aggregate is seldom a good thing, but Roma at least had the precious away goal to their credit, one which was almost erased at the death.
Unbelievable last minute goalline block by Bruno Peres to keep Roma in the tie.#ShakhtarRoma #UCL #giallorossi pic.twitter.com/RCJwzZxCZ9— Still Need a CM (@AFC_Gilles) February 21, 2018
In 90 some-odd minutes of football, this was the only worthy contribution made by a Roma right back. In the run of play it looked like either a miraculous save by Alisson or a bit of dumb luck from Peres, but you can see it right there—Peres had the presence of mind to get a boot to this one, giving Roma a slim chance when the fixture swings back to Rome in three weeks.
Our biggest fear heading into this match was that Roma’s resurgence was a house of cards, built on victories over the bottom feeders of Serie A, and a middling Udinese side. Couple that with Donetsk’s advantage in climate, location and time and the odds were always stacked against Roma, and, well, that’s pretty much how it went.
While the Giallorossi were able to mount a credible charge in the first half, doubling Shakhtar’s shot output, it was a mirage of sorts, as the home side took more touches, completed more passes and was the far more active team defensively. And once the match switched to the second half, Roma simply couldn’t match the Ukrainians creative output, getting outshot 11 to 6 in the second half.
All in all, the best Roma could have really hoped for was escaping Kharkiv with a draw and the precious away goal, but their slow reaction to the tactical changes in the second half doomed them, as they were ripped apart down the left flank, with Donetsk focusing 44% of their forrays down that side.
Combine that with the utter lack of an attack in the second half, and, well, here we are. In three weeks time, Roma’s perfect scenario would see a 1-0 victory over Donetsk. We have no idea how or who will be playing by then, but this ‘here one half, gone the next’ approach has got to change.
Roma hasn’t advanced past this stage in over a decade, and given all the uncertainty in the domestic table, not to mention the transfer market, it would be nice to have this to hang our hats on.
It’ll be a long three weeks, so let’s hope Roma is rested and has a renewed sense of purpose for the entire 90 minutes for a change.