BT Sport and ESPN’s Italian football expert James Horncastle gives his early verdict on the Roma’s Champions League tie against Shakhtar Donetsk.
The Giallorossi will face the Ukrainian champions in the last-16 of the competition, with the two legs taking place in February and March 2018.
What are your initial thoughts on the draw from Roma’s perspective?
“It could have been worse for Roma. Drawing the holders Real Madrid or Bayern wouldn't have felt particularly fair after topping such a difficult group.
“That said the draw could also have gone better. Let's not beat around the bush, all of the one seeds wanted Basel. As for Shakhtar, they were the surprise package of the group stage along with Besiktas. No one expected them to be as competitive as the Lucescu side we saw a few years ago with Fernandinho, Willian, Douglas Costa, Alex Teixeira and Luiz Adriano. But Paulo Fonseca has done a fantastic job in difficult circumstances with another bunch of skilful Brazilians.”
How do you think Roma will approach the game?
“It's a long way away and a lot can change in the meantime. I'm curious to see whether moving the winter break to mid-January helps the Italian sides in Europe this season. The first leg is in Kharkiv which will still be bitterly cold in February.
“The advantage for Roma is the first leg comes just after the Ukrainian league emerges from hibernation. Shakhtar perhaps won't yet be up to speed. Eastern European sides tend to struggle in the last-16. It comes so soon after the winter break and the lack of match rhythm is a problem.
“Roma must make the most of that, particularly when you keep in mind Shakhtar's perfect record at home this season. They greatly impressed in wins against Napoli, Feyenoord and Manchester City whose only defeat in all competitions this season came against the Pitmen.”
How impressed have you been with Roma in the competition so far?
“Very. You have to remember Roma have too often complicated life for themselves unnecessarily in Europe. But not this year. What made it even more surprising was the group they were drawn in. Roma were outsiders to qualify, let alone top the group.
“While the 3-0 win against Chelsea at the Olimpico stands out, I was more impressed by the 3-3 draw at the Bridge. Roma didn't deserve to be 2-0 down. I've seen them crumble over the years in similar circumstances. Here though Roma were unfazed. They kept playing, showing great belief in the manager's game plan, and came roaring back. It was the best performance by an Italian team in the Champions League this season.
“I've haven't seen Roma play that well away from home on the continent since Lyon 2007 and Real Madrid 2008. It felt like a big statement. The definitive proof that Di Francesco, in no time at all, has made this team his own.”
How far do you believe they can go?
“Well, reach the quarter-finals and you never know what might happen. There's no reason why Roma can't be this season's Monaco. They have to take inspiration from the runs Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid made in the past, gatecrashing the big boys’ party, punching above their weight.
“I think the depth Monchi so astutely added in the summer will come in handy. And as his record at Sevilla attests, he knows how to equip a team to go deep in European competition. Of course it's unrealistic to expect them to win it. But that could make them dangerous if faced with one of the favourites. Roma will have nothing to lose.”
What chance do you believe Shakhtar have against Roma?
“Look, Shakhtar beat the best team in Europe this season [Manchester City] and another side [Napoli] who Pep Guardiola considers one of the top five in the world. Fonseca has attracted a lot of attention and not just because he kept his promise to dress up as Zorro if Shakhtar reached the knock out stages. Everton tried to lure him away from the Pitmen during the group stages. They were understandably impressed with how he got Shakhtar to compete against Napoli and City.
“This is a hyper-technical side. And frankly I wouldn't be at all surprised if Monchi jots down the names of Marlos and Bernard - he knows them already of course - because they're players who you think might suit Roma in their current set up. For all the talk about the winter break and its effects on Shakhtar, they did knock Roma out at the same stage in 2011.
“The lesson from that game is a simple one. In fact it's very similar to the one learned against Genoa this season. Roma must keep their heads. Philippe Mexes was sent off albeit with the score 4-2 on aggregate and the away goals already stacked in Shakhtar's favour. An uphill task became a veritable Everest. Roma mustn’t allow that to happen again.”