19:45 GMT, Tuesday 13th March, Stadio Olimpico (Rome, Italy), BT Sport
This season’s surprise package in the Champions League, Shakhtar Donetsk, head to the Stadio Olimpico on Tuesday with a slender 2-1 home win to defend in the second leg of the Round of 16.
If they do manage to progress into the quarterfinals, it will be only the second time in the competition’s history that the Ukrainian champions have made it through to that stage of the competition, eventually losing out to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in 2011.
Interestingly enough, the team – who have been displaced to Kharkiv in the wake of the civil war in Ukraine – are one of the few teams to have beaten Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City this season, beating them 2-1 at the Metalist Stadium in the group stages to guarantee their place in the knockout stages.
Of course, it must be said that, by this point, the Manchester City team were also guaranteed to progress. It does, however, go without saying that Ukraine is a tricky place to visit in European football: something AS Roma fans can attest to, after Shakhtar overturned Cengiz Under’s opening goal to run out 2-1 winners in the first leg.
While AS Roma have had an up-and-down season domestically, finding themselves in third in Serie A but 14 points behind Napoli in second place, their form in the Champions League has been impressive enough.
Most notably, Eusebio Di Francesco oversaw the reversal of a 2-0 deficit against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge to end with his team running out on level terms at 3-3. Roma were comfortable 3-0 winners in the return leg.
The Rome-based side, then, go into this one as favourites, albeit by the slimmest of margins. They should not underestimate Paulo Fonseca’s Shakhtar, though. If they do so, they could find themselves out of the competition by Tuesday evening.
Last Time Out
AS Roma 3-0 Torino (Serie A)
With Serie A returning after a break following the tragic passing of Fiorentina captain, Davide Astori, Roma eased to victory against a Torino side who are comfortably ensconced in the middle of the table.
Torino started the game the more comfortable of the two teams and, on the balance of the first half, probably deserved to go ahead with Roma only retaining parity thanks to some smart goalkeeping action by Allison in the Roma goal.
When Kostas Manolas scored a booming header in the 56th minute after the ball was played back in after a corner, though, the tenor of the game changed and Roma never looked back.
Before long, it was 2-0: after Alessandro Florenzi’s cross was blocked by the Torino defence, Radja Nainggolan headed the ball back in, finding Daniele De Rossi, who fired past the onrushing Salvatore Sirigu.
In extra time, Nainggolan picked up another assist and Roma a consolation goal with Lorenzo Pellegrini latching onto the Belgian’s through ball to put the game beyond Torino.
Vorskla 0-3 Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukrainian Premier League)
In a snowy Poltava, the league leaders made short work of third-placed Vorskla in a game that moved Shakhtar onto 54 points, six points ahead of their closest rivals, Dynamo Kiev.
The scoring was opened early on: Facundo Ferreyra diving to head home Bernard’s cross in the 22nd minute.
Ferreyra would pick up a second within a quarter of an hour, running onto a Marlos lofted through ball to dink the ball over the head of Bohdan Shust in the Vorskla goal.
Marlos would turn provider again the second half, winning a penalty after he was brought down in the Vorskla penalty area: the Brazilian himself stepped up and fired home calmly, giving the away team all three points and looking comfortable at the top of the league going into the final stretch of the Ukrainian Premier League.
AS Roma Lineup
Eusebio Di Francesco will be missing Rick Karsdorp, who remains sidelined with his second serious knee injury of the season, and Gregoire Defrel, who picked up a knock last week.
In happier news, Maxime Gonalons made his return from a calf injury on Friday, coming on for the closing minutes against Torino. Daniele De Rossi is also available, having returned at the weekend following an ankle problem picked up earlier in the season.
Shakhtar Donetsk Lineup
Shakhtar Donetsk’s number 10 Taison has returned to training this week and is expected to start on Tuesday.
In addition, captain Dario Srna continues to be suspended following a drugs charge, Wellington Nem remains a long-term absentee and Sergey Krivstov and Yaroslav Rakitskiy are both doubts.
Key Battle: Edin Dzeko (AS Roma) vs Facundo Ferreyra (Shakhtar Donetsk)
This is a fixture that will be decided by goals scored. If Edin Dzeko can find the net first, Roma are in the driving seat. With an away goal to their name, Eusebio Di Francesco’s side will know that their opponents have to score or they will be heading out of the competition.
The Bosnian and Herzegovinian has shown himself adept at scoring in the Champions League this season, the most impressive of which came in the form of a brace against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. In the league, he has seen a return of 13 goals from 27 games.
The former Manchester City striker will be the focal point of Roma’s attack which, given the fact that they must score to have a chance of progressing, could see him being brought into play for his ball-holding potential and his obvious height advantage from set pieces.
His opposite number, Facundo Ferreyra, faces a similar task: score at all costs. If he can pick up a goal, Shakhtar will know that two Roma goals would still not dislodge them from the competition.
The Argentine has been prolific for Shakhtar this season, scoring 27 times in all competitions, including three goals in Champion League competition. Having scored in the home leg, Shakhtar’s lone striker will feel confident that he can repeat the feat on Tuesday and help his team eject Roma from the competition.
Last Chance Saloon for Roma
With Eusebio Di Francesco’s side out of the Coppa Italia and 14 points adrift of Napoli who are second in Serie A, the Champions League competition remains the final chance of silverware for AS Roma.
Di Francesco will be aware, too, that a fixture against Shakhtar Donetsk – although not to be under-rated – was as friendly an encounter as he could have hoped for (with the possible exceptions of FC Basel or FC Porto) at this stage of the competition.
With little else to play for elsewhere, the Roma coach needs to instil on his players the importance this fixture could have on the club. A quarterfinal place could be enough to boost the club’s transfer clout over the summer, for example. Now is the time to throw all his eggs into one basket.
Fonseca announcing himself to world
In this course of this Champions League run, Paulo Fonseca has announced himself to the football world as a coach who must be taken seriously.
The owners at Shakhtar will be aware of this fact and will know that, to keep him, they will likely have to throw a lot of money at him to distract him from any other suitors.
Tuesday’s game will give a good test of the Portuguese’s abilities at this level and, just as Roma will have appreciated the Ukrainian champions as a beatable opponent, Fonseca will be repaying the favour. A good result here could be the difference between him becoming a household name in Europe or not.
Prediction: AS Roma 2-1 Shakhtar Donetsk
Expect this fixture to go to the wire as the Ukrainian visitors take the game to extra time. After that point, though, it’s anyone’s call.
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