Despite getting Chris Smalling and Edin Dzeko back in the squad, Paulo Fonseca surprised us all with this team selections today, leaving Smalling out of the back three in favor of Marash Kumbulla and Bryan Cristante, while neither Dzeko nor his nominal replacement Borja Mayoral started at all. Instead, Fonseca opted for the rarely seen false nine formation, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan serving in the titular role made famous by Francesco Totti more than a decade ago.
The opening stages of this match are about what we expected. Despite the familiar storylines between the two clubs, the first five to 10 minutes featured your typical feeling-out phase, as both clubs poked and prodded each other, looking for inefficiencies to exploit later in the match.
Roma created the first chance of the evening in the sixth minute via a corner kick. Lorenzo Pellegrini seemed to surprise the Shakhtar defense, quickly whipping a low-angled ball into the near post. With Gonzalo Villar meeting the ball in the blink of an eye, the slim Spanish midfielder nearly deflected the ball into the net with his hip, narrowly missing what would have been an unexpected goal.
Pellegrini would end up on the receiving end of the next chance when Bryan Cristante sprung him into space with a beautifully placed longball over the top. Cristante's pass played Pellegrini right to the edge of the 18-yard-box, pulling the keeper off his line in the process. Pellegrini tried to chip the ball over the splayed-out keeper but the ball sailed wide, but the referee quickly negated the play due to an offside call anyway—one of several times Shakhtar's offside trap lured Roma into jumping the gun.
The ensuing 10 minutes were pretty evenly contested, as both sides seemed moments away from breaking open the match with a variety of probing through balls, but Roma would get the first breakthrough.
Lorenzo Pellegrini: 23rd Minute (Roma 1, Shakhtar Donetsk 0)
Cue the Blink 182, Lorenzo Pellegrini puts Roma ahead pic.twitter.com/QPRRjtd03d— Champions League on CBS Sports (@UCLonCBSSports) March 11, 2021
See? Even CBS, who barely covers Roma, have picked up on their Blink 182 fetish! Roma pulled off the rare throw-in induced goal here, with Spinazzola connecting with Mkhitaryan off the inbound play. Micki then quickly played the ball upfield to Pedro, who did a brilliant job advancing the ball further up the pitch, drawing the final two defenders close enough to allow Pellegrini to sneak behind them and then slipping a perfect ball through to the captain for the goal.
It was a picture-perfect goal from Roma, one that couldn't have come at a more opportune time. With both sides balancing each other out through the first 20 minutes, this match seemed destined for a nil-nil draw.
Roma and Shakhtar would continue to trade blows for the remainder of the half, with both clubs taking somewhat similar paths to the goal, subtly pulling defenders off their high lines before attempting to thread a final pass through the crevices in the back.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan attempted an audacious midfield volley in the 31st minute, catching Antonolii Trubin off his line and barely missing a goal of the year candidate. Mkhitaryan would leave the match with an ill-timed calf injury moments later, with Borja Mayoral taking his place.
Roma would threaten from the corner late in the half, with Pellegrini finding Cristante at the near post but Cristante's flick on to Max Kumbulla was a fraction of a second off and the chance was left begging.
Any worries you had about the second half being dull were quickly erased as Shakhtar immediately turned their eyes towards the goal. Within the first three minutes of the half, the visitors tested Pau Lopez with Tete forcing the Roma keeper to make a quick drop save on a well-placed low and away shot in the 48th minute.
With Shakhtar pressing for an equalizer (literally and figuratively), the intensity in the second half was noticeably different, particularly as we swung towards the hour mark. In a ten-minute sequence between the 58th and 68th minutes, Roma created three genuine scoring chances thanks to the inspired play of Rick Karsdorp, Lorenzo Pellegrini, and Stephan El Shaarawy, who entered the match in place of Pedro in the 62nd minute.
The first foray saw Karsdorp play Pellegrini into space down the right flank. With acres of room to run, Pellegrini surged ahead while El Shaarawy mirrored his movement on the opposite side. As Pellegrini drew closer to the area, SES started to make his break but he just couldn't quite catch up to Pellegrini's in-swinging cross and the chance went wasted.
But, in the very next minute, Pellegrini and El Shaarawy would create more havoc. Once again Pellegrini played a right to left cross to El Shaarawy, and with no discernable path to goal himself, El Shaarawy checked the ball back into the middle of the penalty area but found no one waiting to connect on the pass.
In the 66th minute, Spinazzola and Mayoral joined the party, with Roma's left wing-back pumping in a one-timed left to right cross for Mayoral, but, much like El Shaarawy's first attempt, Borja was just a step too slow.
Shakhtar would make their own move in the 67th minute when Junior Moraes nearly caught Pau Lopez off guard, firing a point-blank shot at the Roma keeper, forcing a quick kick save from Lopez.
That 10 to 15-minute span featured more action than the rest of the match combined, and for a moment it seemed like all those wasted chances would eventually come back to haunt Roma, but their flashy winter signing reeled off a goal like only he could...
Stephan El Shaarawy: 73rd Minute (Roma 2, Shakhtar Donetsk 0)
The finish from El Shaarawy pic.twitter.com/PdXna18tD7— Champions League on CBS Sports (@UCLonCBSSports) March 11, 2021
This was just a gorgeous, no-frills, no wasted movement sequence from Roma; the sort we've been seeing with regularity in 2021. After Spinazzola found Mayoral in the middle of the pitch, Roma's striker quickly fed the ball to El Shaarawy on the left, who timed his break exceptionally well. And from there, it was just your garden variety El Shaarawy goal: cut in from the left, dart between two defenders without breaking a sweat, and then just dink the ball over the keeper who was too busy falling all over himself. El Shaarawy was seemingly getting closer and closer to finding a breakthrough over his past few appearances, and would anyone be surprised if this leads to a deluge of goals in the spring?
But he wasn't done quite yet. Several minutes later, in a nearly identical sequence, El Shaarawy busted loose down the left flank, got into the penalty area, drew the keeper off his line and barely (and I mean barely) missed a chipped goal, as Trubin was able to deflect it over the bar with the very tip of his fingers.
Roma were up two-nil but seemed primed for a third strike. And they got it.
Gianluca Mancini: 77th Minute (Roma 3, Shakhtar Donetsk 0)
Don't you just love a hyped-up French goal call? I know I do. Behind the screams of the world's favorite romance language, we see Lorenzo Pellegrini serving up another spectacular cross, finding Bryan Cristante at the near post. With a quick flick of his head, Cristante served the ball up to Mancini, who scored his fifth headed goal in all competitions this season—the most by an Italian defender this year.
And that was all she wrote. Shakhtar did their best to steal an away goal through the final 15 minutes plus stoppage time, but Roma were always in the right place at the right time to turn it away.
This was a tremendous 90-minute performance from Roma. In the early phases of this match, thanks to the somewhat static play through the middle of the park, it felt like we were careening headlong towards a frustrating draw, which would have then likely produced a 120 minute plus penalty slog next week in Kyiv. So let's be thankful that Roma watched up the pressure in the second half and were it not for El Shaarawy and Mayoral being a split-second late meeting those in-swingers, we're looking at a possible four or five-goal victory.
It wasn't all glad tidings though, as Mkhitaryan's calf injury could produce quite a headache for Paulo Fonseca in the short term. But as it stands, Roma have charted a relatively stress-free path towards the quarter-finals.
Roma runs it back in Serie A against Parma on Sunday.
Man of the match?
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Stephan El Shaarawy