You could be forgiven for thinking that there is only one match taking place in the UEFA Champions League this evening.
Yet, at the same time as Arsenal are taking on Barcelona in the Camp Nou, AS Roma, under the guidance of caretaker manager Vincenzo Montella will look to overturn a first leg deficit at the Donbass Arena against Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk.
And their backs will be well and truly against the wall, against the 2009 UEFA Cup winners.
Since Mircea Lucescu, the wily, experienced Romanian manager of Shakhtar, and his side moved into their futuristic 50,000 capacity home in 2009, they are yet to taste defeat on home turf. Unless Roma can change that, then Montella’s side will be crashing out, burned by a disastrous ten minutes in the first leg where they conceded three times in 12 minutes.
Nevertheless, the 36-year-old club legend, after three games in charge of the giallorossi without defeat (two wins, both away from home, one draw), believes that his side can cause a shock, doing what Arsenal failed to achieve in the group stages, and execute the first defeat on their hosts in over 60 home matches.
“I saw the first leg at home on TV,” Montella said. “Roma started well but then had ten minutes of madness. They were able to react again and were equals.
“Shakhtar have quality players but they are a team that can be beaten. I am optimistic because Roma is growing. They have not lost at home in 60 games so they have quality, but we know this and will find the counter-measures.”
Since his return to the Stadio Olimpico, Montella has favoured a 4-2-3-1 formation and his side have looked far more solid than in the final days under his predecessor, Claudio Ranieri. They’ll certainly need to show that defensive resilience against Shakhtar to stand any chance. Philippe Mexes will need to be imperious at the heart of defence. The Italian international midfielder and sometime captain Danielle De Rossi will have to dominate proceedings from the first whistle.
Going forward and Roma will need to be quick and incisive against a Shakhtar defence that can at times be, quite frankly, slow and ponderous.
The full-backs, Darijo Srna and Razvan Rat both love to fly forward, offering width to their sides creative hub of Brazilians – Douglas Costa, Jadson and Willian. This allows plenty of space down the sides of the two central defenders, Yaroslav Rakitskiy and Dymtro Chygrynskiy – Chygrynskiy back with Shakhtar after 12 months with Barcelona, where to say he failed to impress would be an understatement.
Both defender’s are tall and lacking in pace, so key to any Roma gameplan that Montella looks to put in place should certainly be the fleet-footed French international Jeremy Menez.
The Frenchman has taken his time to adapt to life in the Eternal City but he has shown his true quality this season, being a true bright spot in a disappointing campaign for his club. Playing in a free-role behind a lone striker has seen a new dimension added to Menez’ game, and his movement can cause problems, as it did in the first leg when he scored a beautiful long-range effort.
If Roma can free Menez, and find a way to isolate him in the channels against either of the big defenders, then they could certainly reap the rewards.
Playing as the spearhead in Montella’s attack will either be the on-loan target-man Marco Borriello, or the more mobile Montenegro forward Mirko Vucinic.
Personally, Vucinic would be the preferred option, again due to his control, pace and mobility, with Borriello to come on if Roma need a goal late on. Shakhtar’s defensive duo are much better equipped to deal with the Italian, who is less likely to create a chance through individual brilliance.
Montella has shown an air of relaxed authority since his ascension into the top job. Tonight, he must show the tactical nous and devilment that he showed as a player, if Roma are to take an improbable quarter-final spot from their opponent’s grasp.