With a three-nil lead in his back pocket and a critical Serie A match against Napoli waiting for Roma on Sunday, Paulo Fonseca surprised all of us by trotting out more of the Giallorossi's regulars than most fans and pundits expected. While we assumed (and hoped) that Fonseca would find immediate rest for players like Leonardo Spinazzola, that simply wasn't the case, though he did manage to give a rare start to Carles Perez in place of the injured Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
No matter who Fonseca chose today, the job was clear and simple: avoid disaster. While Fonseca and several Roma players said all the right things about playing to win and showcasing their typical brand of football, only one thing mattered today—hanging onto that three-goal lead and booking their ticket to the Quarterfinals.
Of course, the flip side to having such a seemingly insurmountable lead is that your opponents are essentially playing with house money. And with a three-goal deficit to erase, Shakhtar were ready to pounce from the opening whistle. So much so that, shortly after kickoff (like, within the first 20 seconds of the whistle), they immediately swarmed Marash Kumbulla when he took Roma's first touch of the match.
And I wish I could say that sequence precipitated 45 minutes of non-stop action in the first half, but the match carried out as expected: Roma let Shakhtar pass and move to their heart's content while the Giallorossi simply sat back and absorbed the pressure. And it's not as if Shakhtar were peppering Pau Lopez with shots either. They only managed four attempts in the first half (while enjoying nearly 80% of the ball), only one of which really forced Lopez into anything remotely resembling a difficult save.
With Roma shifting into neutral for much of the half, there wasn't much action to speak of at the opposite end of the pitch either. Carles Pérez made a few darting runs into the box and Borja Mayoral nearly slipped past the last defender a few times to set up a one-v-one with keeper Anatolii Trubin, but Roma didn't have much more luck than Shakthar in the final third.
But, given the state of the aggregate scoreline, Roma played this half perfectly, so the seeming lack of urgency in attack didn't tell the entire story.
Would there be anything to write home about in the second half?
With 45 minutes standing between them and a trip to the Europa League quarterfinals, Roma simply had to stand pat in the second half. If they followed the same boring but effective script from the first half, there was simply no way Shakhtar could hope to erase their three-goal deficit. It wouldn't make for captivating viewing but it would see Roma through to the next round.
But Roma made things just a bit tougher on the home side.
Borja Mayoral: 48th Minute (Shakhtar Donetsk 0, Roma 1)
Borja Mayoral pic.twitter.com/bQbjaFVeip— goncalodias17 (@goncalo_dias_17) March 18, 2021
Given how dull this match was to this point, this might as well have been a vintage coast-to-coast dribbling exhibition from Lionel Messi or Diego Maradona; it was that exciting at the moment. But when you run it back, this is one of the strangest sequences we've seen in quite some time.
It's tough to tell because of the blip in the middle of that goal clip, but Rick Karsdorop was almost dispossessed twice, nearly being stripped of the ball as he was dribbling at the edge of the area, and then again when he squared the ball to the middle. But Roma caught a bit of a break when the second deflection fell right to Mayoral, who did well to head the ball at such a tight angle—it almost looked like a slicing drive on a fairway that doglegs to the left. Brilliant bit of skill from Borja.
Roma nearly doubled their lead several minutes later when Pedro carved out a bit of space in the Shakhtar area, only to miss a wide-open left-footed attempt. It's difficult to say exactly what went wrong—he had all day and wasn't under much duress—but he just seemed to get too much heel on the ball, pushing it wide left.
And it wouldn't take long for Shakhtar to capitalize on Roma's misfortune. In the 59th minute, with Shakhtar taking a deep free-kick from the left side of the pitch, the home side struck back with a beautifully orchestrated setpiece, keeping Roma at sixes and sevens, swinging the ball from post to post multiple times in one move. The capper saw Alan Patrick head the ball back across the area to Junior Moraes at the opposite post, and the Brazilian slotted it home without batting an eye.
The match may have been level at one apiece, but thanks to Mayoral's earlier goal the aggregate score was now 4-1, though Mayoral's goal (which was an away goal) effectively gave Roma a four-goal cushion.
With the game all but on ice, Paulo Fonseca emptied his bench as the match approached the hour marking, bringing on Lorenzo Pellegrini, Bruno Peres, and Riccardo Calafiori for Diawara, Karsdorp, and Spinazzola, respectively.
The ensuing ten minutes ebbed and flowed with Shakthar desperately throwing every man they had towards Lopez's goal, but Roma put the final nail in the coffin thanks to Mayoral.
Borja Mayoral: 72nd Minute (Shakhtar Donetsk 1, Roma 2)
Segundo de Mayoral, quinto de la Roma en la serie ante el Shakhtar, al que borró de la serie. Buen recurso de Borja. Daje! pic.twitter.com/rk5vs4emz4— Maxi Friggieri (@MaxiFriggieri) March 18, 2021
Pedro atoned for his earlier miss by playing a killer through ball from midfield, picking out Carles Pérez at the left edge of the area. And with Trubin well off his line now, Pérez calmly dribbled around him before centering the ball to Mayoral in the penalty box. With a Shakhtar defender desperately attempting a diving clearance, Mayoral took his time before deftly chipping it over the splayed-out defender.
With the aggregate scoreline now standing at 5-1, the final 20 minutes of the match were rather academic. Mayoral almost scored again, Shakhtar saw an appeal for a penalty denied and Fonseca used his final change to give El Shaarawy some run before the weekend’s tilt against Napoli.
And that was that for Roma's Round of 16 matchup against Shakhtar Donetsk. The referee tacked on two added minutes, but Roma laid the foundation for this win a week ago.
Whether you love the Europa League or hate it, Roma are now one of the final teams standing and have a chance to end their decade-plus title drought. This wasn't a flawless performance from the men wearing off-white, but the Giallorossi stymied their hosts at every turn. Despite ceding two-thirds of the ball to Shakhtar, Roma limited the Ukrainian club to eight attempts on goal, half of which came from beyond 18 yards.
Thankfully, Borja Mayoral gave us something to cheer about because this was a dreadfully boring affair for large swaths of the match tonight in Kyiv, but the Giallorossi got the job done and the extent to which they had you on the edge of your sofa is irrelevant.
Roma are through to the quarterfinals—and that just feels nice to say, doesn't it?
Roma's top four life is likey on the line when they host Napoli on Sunday.
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