By Maura Gladys
When Shakhtar Donetsk plays AS Roma at Stadio Olimpico in Rome on Wednesday, the squad that takes the pitch for Donetsk will reflect the evolution of Mircea Lucescu’s squad from a bunch of high-profile signings to a core group of young, bright stars and seasoned veterans, playing the kind of creative, intelligent soccer that could propel them to the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League. Gone are big names like Elano, Cristiano Lucarelli Anatoliy Tymoshchuk and Matuzalem who populated the roster five and six years ago, replaced by young talent like Luiz Adriano, Douglas Costa and Yaroslav Rakytskyy. Alongside the youngsters are smart veterans like Eduardo and Darijo Srna and Jadson. By fostering this young talent and allowing the team to gel as a unit, Lucescu has built a squad that relies on accurate passes, crisp execution and finishing. But their true mettle will be tested on Wednesday, when they take on Roma in the first leg of their Round of 16 match up.
Shakhtar went 5-1 in group play, good for the top spot in Group H which featured Arsenal, FC Braga and Partizan Belgrade, and appeared in great form the last time we saw them. Unfortunately, the last time we saw them was on December 8 against Braga. Because of the Ukraine Premier League’s winter break, Shakhtar has only had smaller winter break tournaments to keep the team in top form and prepare them to take on Roma. This could work to their advantage, as most players (besides center back Olexandr Kucher, who is out with a knee injury) are healthy and fresh, unlike a team in mid-season form which could be a little more beat up. However, a two-month layoff from elite competition could leave the Pitmen a little rusty.
Another big factor is the current form of Shakhtar’s opponent. Roma has been sputtering in Serie A as of late, going winless in the last three games, so it’s a perfect time for Shakhtar to come in and steal a few points. In order to do that, they need to stick to the simple effective style that got them here, relying on fluid ball movement and using the wings to swing the balls into their point man, Luiz Adriano in front of the goal.
The fact that they’re playing in Rome, and that they haven’t played a meaningful game since December are certainly two major obstacles for the Pitmen. But if they can execute and finish against a floundering team they should be able to secure at least a draw and take a huge step towards advancing to the quarterfinals of the Champions League.