On paper Shakhtar Donetsk should have been no match for Roma. Weaker league, cheaper lineup, less glamorous players and so on and so forth. But that’s on paper, Champions League matches are played on pitches, and in this case the first leg was played on a practically frozen pitch, with the hosts having a two-month preparatory period prior to Roma’s arrival in Ukraine.
For those reasons, plus a few others we’ll discuss momentarily, Roma weren’t able to overcome Donetsk on that cold Ukraine night and now face a do or die affair, with a 2-1 aggregate deficit standing between them and their first taste of the Champions League quarterfinals in a decade.
February 21st: Shakhtar 2, Roma 1
While Roma drew first blood thanks to Cengiz Ünder, their luck ultimately ran out as Roma limped away from Ukraine on the wrong side of a 2-1 scoreline. Roma followed up that disappointment with a stinker of a match at home against AC Milan, but have been all aces since then, dusting off Napoli and Torino in successive weeks, all while scoring seven goals in the process.
Lessons from the Last Leg
Following Roma’s loss in the first leg, we took a look at three factors present in that narrow defeat: their extreme reliance on attacking down the left flank, the absence of Radja Nainggolan as a controlling factor in the midfield, and the lack of service and/or inactivity of Edin Dzeko.
While Roma hasn’t really ditched their tendency to attack through Aleksandar Kolarov down the left, they have been able to remedy the remaining two issues in the victories over Napoli and Torino. During that 4-2 victory over Napoli, both Edin Dzeko and Radja Nainggolan were in the thick of the action, with Dzeko hauling off four shots, scoring two goals in the process, while Nainggolan created two scoring chances and completed 90% of his passes. While Dzeko was missing from Friday’s cleansheet victory over Torino, Nainggolan was even more impressive, taking over 50 touches, two shots and providing two assists.
And much of the credit for that goes to Eusebio Di Francesco, whose halftime changes last week were instrumental in unlocking Nainggolan and breaking a scoreless deadlock. By pushing Nainggolan closer to the forwards, which would have been Dzeko had he played, Roma nearly quadrupled their shot output and scored three goals in, like, half an hour. This wasn’t the sole reason for that turnaround, but their certainly seems to be a correlation between Roma’s offensive output and Nainggolan’s position on the pitch.
Regardless, this was pretty impressive stuff and, quite simply, the key to erasing their one-goal deficit against Donetsk. Roma simply cannot fall back into their old habits—they need to ride the horses that brought them here; let Nainggolan wreak havoc in attacking spaces and get the ball to Dzeko at all costs.
Of course, that’s not their only path to victory, but it’s the most direct and the one that is perhaps least defensible by Shakhtar. To put it simply, Roma just need a goal to utilize their away goal advantage. Donetsk can shackle and frustrate Roma’s wingers, but with his sheer size and brute force, if anyone stands the chance of grabbing a garbage goal before Roma parks the bus, it’s Dzeko.
There are, of course, multiple permutations at play here, but a 1-0 victory is the simplest, though most fraught with anxiety, path towards the quarterfinals. If Roma goes up early and sits back for an hour or so, the chances of Roma happening would seem to increase with every passing minute.
So if EDF really wants to put this thing on ice, Roma needs to meld their approaches from the last two weeks. They need to combine the midfield dominance that enabled them to spring Ünder and Florenzi out wide against Torino with their Dzeko-centric approach that delivered the upset over Napoli. These ideas may seem at odds, but that’s precisely why Roma has invested so heavily in their frontline—to have multiple, viable threats that keep the defense from keying on one strategy.
The common thread between those two victories, however, was Nainggolan. Roma simply must unleash the beast—let Radja get forward, let him harry the defense when they’re trying to build from the back, let him bomb into the box, and let his freak flag fly.
Roma’s attack isn’t perfectly assembled, which is why someone as unconventional as Nainggolan has become so important to their attack, but as we’ve mentioned over the past several weeks, Roma works best when Radja has room to roam.