In what many would claim as an upset, Roma finished at the top of Group C against perennial Champions League challengers Chelsea and Atletico Madrid. Eusebio Di Francesco has transformed this Roma team from being the laughingstocks of the Champions League into opponents to be feared.
Roma’s next opponent in the Round of Sixteen is Shakhtar Donetsk. Having been in a group with both Guardiola’s Manchester City and Sarri’s Napoli, it is easy to forgive the average fan for simply counting out Shakhtar; however, this would prove to be a mistake. Led by Portuguese manager Paulo Fonseca, the Ukranian superpower has been able to continue their dominance over the league after the departure of long-time manager Mircea Lucescu. They finished first in the Ukranian Premier League last season while finishing second in their Champions League group this season. The Portuguese has implemented a 4-2-3-1 system and allowed them to play possession-oriented attacking football. This system has allowed him to compete toe-to-toe with even renowned offensive football geniuses Guardiola and Sarri. He bested Sarri in both of their matchups while he defeated Guardiola in their second matchup (granted it was a heavily rotated Manchester City side) to deny Manchester City from finishing the group undefeated and condemning Napoli to the Europa League.
For the average fan who has most likely not watched much of Shakhtar bar their big Champions League matches, here’s a quick overview of Paulo Fonseca’s tactics. Fonseca’s tactics involve Shakhtar’s fullbacks to staying high up out wide and serving as an overlap option or opening up space for an underlap run from the midfield players. Any of those players can then cross it or cut it back to one of three or four players attacking the space in front of goal. Shakhtar use their possession to pull apart the shape of opposition teams and then attack the space left open to them. If that approach does not work, then they will use either one of the pivot men or their center backs to break the lines in quick succession and counter attack on what would seem like a reset. The players position themselves in in a way to form passing triangles in order to manipulate the space given to them and deliver a killer blow to the defence. In defence, the team defends in 4-4-2/4-1-3-2 depending on where the ball is on the field and deploy a man-marking system. They also play a high line and play an audacious offside line that rarely fails. With these tactics, Fonseca has his team set up for success.
Shakhtar’s most important player has to be Fred. The mobile regista is the heart of Shakhtar; he serves as the metronome of the team as they probe for an opening in the opponent’s defence while his line-breaking passes quickly start counterattacks. During the defensive phase of the game, he will often serve as the spare men and recover the ball and initiate a deadly counterattack. Fred’s specialty though is attack. With one pass, he is able to take out five players and set his teammates up for a goal-scoring chance. His passing ability in Shakhtar’s buildup allow them to play at a high-tempo and also play attractive, attacking football. He is press-resistant and easily able to find his teammates for a quick one-two in order to create chaos in the opposition team’s defense. Even when he does not have the ball, Fred is able to be very effective. His importance to the team will see teams pay more attention to him; Fred uses this to his advantage as he will use himself as a decoy to open up space for his teammates. His positioning is also very good as he is able to always receive a pass from his teammate and form a passing triangle with them. It is no wonder Guardiola reportedly has him lined up as Fernandinho’s replacement.
While Roma enter into this match as winners of Group C, their form since they have won suggests that this match will make or break their season. Having only won one game in seven in Serie A since their impressive Derby win, the Capitol club has struggled to defeat smaller teams and, on many occasions, look lost on the field. Their inability to score more than one goal has cost them many points during this terrible run of for. This has seen them slip behind both Lazio and Inter and reside in fifth place in what has turned into a competitive Serie A seasona and tight race for Champions League football. In what should have been a winter where they would strengthen themselves for the second half of the calendar, Roma ended up only bringing in an injured Jonathan Silva from Sporting Portugal CP on a loan with an option to buy while selling the excellent Emerson Palmieri for peanuts to Chelsea. They also sold Hector Moreno to Real Sociedad six months after he joined. Rather than signings appearing, it was rumors of both Emerson and Dzeko moving to Chelsea that appeared in the headlines. The duo were both very close to leaving but Chelsea could not agree personal terms with Džeko which is why only Emerson was sold. The team still needs a competent right back instead of playing Alessandro Florenzi (who is better as a midfielder having played there throughout his whole career) and the walking training cone Bruno Peres while a creative midfielder would have gone a long way to help out with Roma’s scoring issues.
Coming into this match, the last time Roma has scored more than one goal was back in the beginning of December. Since that game against SPAL where they scored three, Roma has struggled to even score one goal under Di Francesco who ironically considers himself a disciple of Zdeněk Zeman. During this horrid run of from, the team has slipped out of the Scudetto race, but surprisingly enough still managed to stay in the race for Champions League Football. While in any other league this form would have been punished by other teams, the terrible forms of both Inter and Lazio has managed to keep Roma just one and two points away from the others respectively.
Luckily enough, Eusebio Di Francesco has decided to tinker with Roma’s formation and has finally brought victory to Roma for the first time in almost two months. Hopefully, Roma’s latest victory against Hellas Verona will start a change in Roma’s form and see them win games now. Shakhtar will be no pushover- the last time the two teams faced each other was in the Champions League Round of Sixteen in 2010/11. In the slums of the 2010/11 season, Shakhtar dismantled Roma to the tune of 6-2 as the team boasted future top-class players such as Willian and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. This time around, they will be going against a fairly strong Shakhtar Donestsk with its renown Brazilian contingent. While their league form might be terrible, you never know which Roma you will get in Europe. As always: La Roma non si discute, si ama. In bocca al luppi, AS Roma! You will definitely need it.
Writer: Sarfraz Khan