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Roma (4-3-3) | Manager: Eusebio Di Francesco
1. Alison / 24. Florenzi, 44. Manolas, 20. Fazio, 11. Kolarov / 4. Nainggolan, 16. De Rossi, 6. Strootman / 17. Under, 9. Dzeko, 8. Perotti
Shakhtar (4-2-3-1) | Manager: Paulo Fonseca
30. Pyatov / 2. Butko, 18. Ordets, 44. Rakitskiy, 31. Ismaily / 8. Fred, 6. Stepanenko / 11. Marlos, 7. Taison, 10. Bernard / 19. Ferreyra
Shakhtar dominate the first half-hour
Roma lost in the first leg and needed to score to qualify, so Shakhtar Donetsk used a reactive approach. They waited for the Italians to attack and defended in 4-4-2 with Taison and Facundo Ferreyra in the first line. They didn’t pressure Federico Fazio and Kostas Manolas during Roma’s build-up and focused to eliminate the passing lanes toward Daniele De Rossi. The Roman captain was too dangerous when left alone. His passes always found his teammates to transition into the attacking phase:
By keeping De Rossi from having possession, Shakhtar forced Roma to advance on the flank. Roma like to attack through the left side with Aleksandar Kolarov and Diego Perotti. Kolarov has a good passing range and Perotti can hold up and dribble. Eusebio Di Francesco tried to use Perotti as a decoy to pull the defenders away from the center and to create space for Edin Dzeko and Radja Nainggolan to overload:
Paulo Fonseca wanted to prevent Roma from accessing those areas. Bohdan Butko and Marlos closed out Kolarov as soon as he was in possession and prevented him from finding the diagonal passing lane. The other midfielders stayed behind to guard the space. Roma couldn’t penetrate Shakhtar through build-up.
Roma also struggled to defend. During build-up, Shakhtar used efficient positional exchange and movement to advance the ball; the central midfielders, especially Taras Stepanenko, dropped between the center backs to control the possession. The fullbacks pushed up and created a 3-4-3with Taison and Fred in the midfield. Taison often delayed his movement to generate a temporal window for a possible passing lane. Stepanenko, Fred and Taison carried most of the possession. Roma struggled to contain them. When defending in a 4-1-4-1, Roma’s front four players didn’t provide enough support for Dzeko during pressing. Roma had a numerical disadvantage and couldn’t close down the Ukrainians.
Shakhtar mainly attacked the left flank. They overloaded Roma through Ismaily, Taison, Bernard, and Fred or Stepanenko. Bernard would move inside to create space for Ismaily or even Stepanenko to move in. Shakhtar’s players were good in possession, so they could always wait for a teammate to overload. Nainggolan and Cengiz Under weren’t alert, so the visitors often overwhelmed De Rossi and Alessandro Florenzi.
But Shakhtar’s final passes were poor. They couldn’t take advantage of their dominance to create any chance.
Roma made adjustment and took control
Roma adjusted their approach midway through the first-half and took control of the game. When they pressed, the whole team moved higher, and the front four players could now support Dzeko. Under showed real talent here. He understood how a cover shadow would block a passing lane toward Ismaily when he decided which player to mark. Shakhtar lost the numerical advantage in the build-up. If they broke through the press, Roma’s defenders were quick to close them down or intercept:
Even when Shakhtar transitioned into the attacking phase, Roma still found ways to contain them. Nainggolan and Under became more engaged in defense and prevented the Ukrainians from overloading them on the flank. Shakhtar couldn’t generate any chance except when they were able to intercept Roma’s erratic passes and counter-attack.
Their gradual build-up had not been working, so Roma focused to deliver long balls to bypass Shakhtar’s first two lines of the defense.
Roma has an advantage in the long ball; they win 60.7% of the headers, best among the clubs playing in the Champions League this season. They won 73% of the aerial duels against Shakhtar in this game. But Shakhtar coped well with Roma’s long balls. Fred and Stepanenko always helped the defenders. Shakhtar also used successful offside traps (which backfired later). Roma didn’t create any chance directly from the long balls in the first half.
Di Francesco insisted on playing these seemingly reckless passes because they changed the dynamic of the game. When Roma initiated the long ball deep from their half, the Ukrainians didn’t have time to move into the proper defensive positions. All those close-downs against De Rossi or Kolarov became useless when Roma’s players `hoofed the ball over to Dzeko, Perotti and Under.
Worse, Roma could now stretch Shakhtar’s defense. Even if the long ball didn’t reach Roma’s players, it became a loose ball for a 50-50 duel. Shakhtar are technical and possession-based. They need structure to thrive. But Di Francesco’s approach made the game chaotic. There were more individual duels and fewer structured encounters. Success came down to players’ characteristics; the Italians were physically stronger.
Roma responded faster and better after the long ball to deprive Shakhtar of the time to organize. Shakhtar still dominated the possession, but they couldn’t control the transition between the defensive and offensive phases. Roma commanded the tempo and space. And their patience paid off when Shakhtar finally made a mistake with their offside trap.
The match flipped to Roma’s favor once they took the lead. They could sit deep, congest the space, and counter-attack. Shakhtar needed to attack and left more space for Roma to exploit. The long ball now had more success and created several chances. Roma should’ve scored another goal to finish off the game. They didn’t, but neither could Shakhtar penetrate them.
Roma dominated the second half and qualified.
Roma has a newfound quality
Roma showed patience and calm in this game. They knew that they were better than their opponent. They recognized that their game plan was working even though they didn’t score in the first half. And they believed that they would get a chance if they applied enough pressure. Their understanding and handling of this game means that they are confident. Not since Fabio Capello’s era has any coach installed confidence to this team. Roma showed it in the biggest match of their season. You have to applaud Di Francesco for this accomplishment.
Roma may not go far in the Champions League; glory in Europe requires experience and Roma don’t have any. But their European campaign has been a success and exceeded any expectation. Their performances in the last few games bode well with their domestic campaign; with Lazio going strong, Inter still figuring out their slump, and Milan a little behind, the two Champions League qualification spots may very well end up in Rome.
Read: Champions League Quarterfinals | Tactical Preview – FC Barcelona vs AS Roma