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Despite their considerable European pedigree, many will look upon Ukrainian league champions Shakhtar Donetsk as one of the easier opponents Roma could have been drawn against in the Champions League Round of 16.
One only needs to look at Napoli’s escapades in Kharkiv earlier on this campaign to understand why underestimating the Miners is a very bad idea. It seemed as though the Partenopei men thought all they had to do was turn up, pass the ball around neatly and the goals would follow.
How wrong they were.
Coach Paulo Fonseca has almost exclusively deployed a 4-2-3-1 formation since joining from Braga in the summer of 2016, meaning that each and every player knows their position like the back of their hand. They are such a well-drilled unit, which is evident in both defensive and attacking phases of the game.
When firing on all cylinders, Shakhtar’s front four of Marlos, Taison, Bernard and Facundo Ferreyra is among the most clinical in Europe. It has everything: pace, power and technique.
The Moles’ exciting South American attacking quartet is complimented by Fred and Taras Stepanenko, who are tasked with shielding the back four as well as controlling play from deep.
Fonseca’s team is definitely at its most vulnerable when asked serious questions defensively. Like many sides from so-called lesser leagues across the continent, they are used to being in complete control of 90% of the matches they play and therefore struggle when the initiative is with their opponents.
There is no doubt the likes of Edin Džeko, Diego Perotti and Stephan El Shaarawy can hurt them; Roma’s problem will be stopping the three Brazilian magicians influencing the tie in the same way they did against Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli in Ukraine.
Following Monday afternoon’s draw in Nyon, Giallorossi boss Eusebio Di Francesco was full of praise for his opponents: “Over the last few months I have followed Shakhtar Donetsk closely: they are a well-organised side from a tactical standpoint, thanks to the work of Paulo Fonseca, who I believe is a great coach.
They qualified from a tough group – eliminating Napoli, who are one of the best sides in Italy. There are a lot of reasons to respect them as opponents, but there are just as many reasons why we must go out on the pitch and give everything to qualify for the next round.”
As many illustrious clubs have found out over the last 10-12 years or so, Shakhtar Donetsk are a team that you underestimate at your peril.
Despite the political issues suffered in their native region throughout the past few years – forcing them to relocate – they have sufficient quality in their ranks to hurt almost anyone. It sounds as though Di Francesco is well aware of this and is determined not to fall into the same trap as so many have before him.
It will be very interesting to see how this one plays out: while it may not have the same glamour or worldwide appeal as Chelsea vs. Barcelona or Real Madrid vs. Paris Saint-Germain, it has the potential to be one of the most tactically intriguing ties of the round between two of the tournament’s dark horses.
Only time will tell whether the Ukrainians can upset the odds once more and send another of Serie A’s Scudetto-chasing giants crashing out of Europe.
Written by Jordan Russell
Follow Jordan on Twitter @JordRuss96
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