Claudio Ranieri’s Roma haven’t exactly set Serie A on fire this year, escaping from a tough group can they escape their league inconsistency and find success in Europe. Stuart Harper from trequartista.net is the man to answer that question.

Wednesday sees Roma host Shakhtar Donetsk in round sixteen of the Champions League. Despite the Ukrainian outfit making their first ever appearance in the knockout stages, it is pure folly to assume that the Italians will inevitably progress against Mircea Lucescu’s ‘pitmen’.

Roma are busy on three fronts; domestically with a guaranteed berth in the Coppa Italia semi-final and on the periphery of a title challenge in Serie A. For a club hamstrung by financial difficulties and unable to invest in reinforcements, a Champions League adventure may prove too much for a squad lacking discernable depth.

In contrast, beyond a recent Emirates based training camp, Shakhtar’s team haven’t played competitively since November, thanks to Ukraine’s winter break. Whether Shaktar return from their hiatus rusty or refreshed is unknown but a beleaguered Roma are sure to be tested by Lucescu’s revitalised squad.

On their day, Roma’s preferred starting XI has sufficient quality to trouble any opponent – Bayern Munich will testify to this, having relinquished a two goal lead to lose 3-2 to Roma in the group stages. Jeremy Menez and Francesco Totti offer midfield pace and guile respectively, while Mirko Vucinic and Marco Boriello offer goals from both inside and outside of the box. Beyond these protagonists however, Roma struggle in attack.

Defensively, it’s a similar story with solely Mexes and Juan forming the fulcrum of Roma’s rearguard. De Rossi often drops deep to help patrol the defensive third but with little pace amongst this trident; Roma will need to be vigilant against a fresh Shakhtar. Additionally, Roma’s fullback berths are known to be weak areas and with Donetsk offering a threat from both wings this will be no cakewalk.

Shakhtar will watch Roma’s Saturday night duel with Napoli from the comfort of their Rome base (the luxurious Cavalieri Hotel) as the Ukranian’s travelled well in advance. If the Serie A fixture takes its toll, a second leg in the hostile Donbass Arena may well prove to be an easier prospect.

Shakhtar will hope to revenge a 4-1 aggregate loss to Roma in their last meetings (2006/2007) but while Roma remain favourites, 2009’s UEFA Cup triumph proves Shakhtar will be a stern test and this tie very much hangs in the balance.

Flying high atop of the Ukranian Premier League it’s a position Shakthar are very used to, however when they face Roma it will be their first appearance in the Champions League knockout stage. Dominic Viera from A Football Report dismisses the underdog tag.

Shakhtar Donetsk travel to the Italian eternal city, Rome, where they’ll face an AS Roma side which has yet to record a win this month. It’s the first time Shakhtar reach the last 16 of Europe’s most competitive prestigious tournament and this is the stage when the Champions League truly sets alight.

Even though the leg consists of two matches, winning the first encounter is crucial and Shakhtar who haven’t participated in a competitive match since December, must play to their maximum capability and strength at the Stadio Olimpico this evening. After all, nobody plays football to lose, right?

The Ukrainian champions finished top of Group H ahead of Arsenal with 15 points. Shakhtar scored a total of 12 goals in which 10 of them were struck in the second half of their matches.  Mircea Lucescu fields a flexible 4-2-3-1 formation with four Brazilians playing in the offensive positions; the advanced midfield trio consists of Willian, Jadson and Douglas Costa. Jadson is highly experienced, intelligent and acts as the brain; he’s supported by the two talented and skilful youngsters on the sides.

Up front plays Luiz Adriano who wears the number 9 jersey, he’s scored 15 goals this season including 3 from this competition.  He’s their main goal scoring threat but if Luiz Adriano is not bagging the goals, it’s normal to see the former Arsenal striker Eduardo entering in the second half.

However, Shakhtar’s real danger is the Croatian attacking right-back Darijo Srna, he also wears the captain’s armband. Srna plays the entire flank which means he must defend efficiently and attack constructively with objective. It’s regular to watch this Croatian march down the right flank and when he does, the attacking dimension transforms into 4 offensive midfielders and a striker. A team which attacks with 5 men must create chances and they’ll certainly exploit Roma’s defence tonight or tomorrow night with their options.  The Ukrainian Premier League may not be played at the same standard as the Champions League or Serie A, but Shakhtar have scored 38 league goals.

On the other hand, there are two factors which play against the visitors’ advantage. Domestically, Shakhtar are consistently labelled as the favourites, but when they met Arsenal at the Emirates last October they were the underdogs.  The team didn’t handle the pressure effectively, lacked confidence, failed to impose their game and were outclassed by a stronger side. AS Roma are not Arsenal and certainly aren’t playing in killer form, but they’re favourites as the game is on their turf. How will this affect Shakhtar’s approach?

The second and most important factor is match fitness. The Ukrainian Premier League is suspended until early March which means that Shakhtar’s players are probably not as sharp and match fit as Ranieri’s men. However, they can benefit from this as their players can psychologically and physically prepare for this encounter whilst remaining in a fresh condition. As the team score plenty of second half goals, it won’t be a surprise to see them run the extra mile. AS Roma better keep up.

Roma have been inconsistent and disappointing this season, they won two of their home fixtures and lost the other to FC Basel 3-1. However, they can’t be underestimated and must be respected. Marco Borriello has 4 Champions League goals to his name and is lively in the box which implies that Chygrynski will have a busy night marking the former Milan star. And let’s not forget about Francesco Totti’s experience, quality and skill which certainly makes him a danger on the field and a match winning player.

The first leg is going to be an open battle, neither side wants to concede but both must attack as goals are essential and ultimately, the difference. Shakthar will need time to find their balance, rhythm and form; but once they hit 5th gear which will probably occur in the final 30 minutes of the match, they’re hard to stop.

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February 17th, 2011

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andrew Gibney, Andrew Gibney, Dominic Vieira, Andrew Gibney, Andrew Gibney and others. Andrew Gibney said: AS ROMA v SHAKHTAR DONETSK – Champions League preview by @StuartJHarper and @dominicvieira http://bit.ly/hiL57S [...]

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