Between Roma’s play being broken down into a series of solo acts who couldn’t find each other on the ball, and Shakhtar Donetsk looking like a side devoid of confidence and energy, the first half of this match was pure, unadulterated Europa League garbage. Half-time saw just six shots on goal from both sides combined, with four of those attempts off target and one blocked. Thank everything for Borja Mayoral then, who changed the nature of the match from the second half onwards.
It took just three minutes of the second half for Mayoral to get on the scoresheet and become joint-topscorer in this season’s Europe League. The goal was all Roma needed to finally stroke the ball around with confidence and their tails up. Paulo Fonseca bought into Roma’s aggregate lead on the night, enough to make a triple sub that involved taking off Diawara, who’d spent the match snuffing out any Shakhtar thoughts of a second-leg comeback before his opponents could even form the thought. There couldn’t be a moment more symbolic of Roma’s team balance than Shakhtar immediately scoring in the very next sequence after Diawara had been subbed.
1-1 on the night, with a half-hour of play still to go left some lingering questions: Would Shakhtar begin to believe in the impossible? Would Roma shrink in their shells and hope someone else carried the responsibility until full time? It’s refreshing to say Roma answered a firm “no” to the latter question.
Instead, what we were treated to was Roma going up the other end and winning this game on principle. It was once again Borja Mayoral making himself the now-outright EL topscorer, assisted by some very unselfish play from teammate Carles Perez. The Giallorossi may have been on the fortunate end of the refereeing decisions throughout this tie, but the best side won both legs of this knockout fixture - and we even had time for a stunning Pau Lopez save to keep the win firmly in Roma’s grasp.
Roma now put an end to their streak of crashing out the Europa League Round of 16 and go into parts unknown of this competition. The combined EL quarter-final and semi-final draw awaits tomorrow.