Del Piero's splash of class scuppers Hoops
Shamrock Rovers 0
(Juventus win 3-0 on aggregate)
THEY came fearing a lesson from the Old Lady, but, in the end, Shamrock Rovers thrived in a game dominated by the worst excesses of Mother Nature until a footballing act of divine intervention.
Juve fans worship Alessandro del Piero and he came off the bench to produce a stunning free-kick, a dipping thunderbolt from 30 yards, that might just creep on to a package of his greatest goals. There was no shame for the League of Ireland side in losing to a strike of that quality.
Considering the dominance of their millionaire opponents in their two goal first leg success, few had expected the Dubliners to retain parity for 74 minutes on Italian soil. They exited the Europa League with their heads held high, with an ovation from the large travelling contingent and generous applause from sections of the Juventus followers at the Stadio Alberto Braglia.
"I'm delighted with the performance," said proud manager Michael O'Neill, "That we came and played in such a disciplined fashion against such a great club. The difference was a sublime piece of magic from one of the great players in world football."
In truth, this fixture probably shouldn't have gone ahead at its scheduled kick-off time given the prevailing conditions in the early stages with puddles around the pitch making passing impossible and making safety a serious concern.
"I did think it would be cancelled," said Juve coach Luigi Delneri. "But with the amount of water that fell down, the pitch wasn't too bad once we got to the second half."
With Sunday's derby against Bohemians in mind, Michael O'Neill feared injuries and he'll probably have to contend with a few coughs and splutters as well. Certainly, that'll be the case for a large number of the 1,000 Rovers supporters. A torrential downpour an hour before kick-off made the conditions pretty horrific for the travelling fans, considering they were located at the one uncovered end of the Serie B end. While the majority took shelter in the confines of the stadium, a committed, good-natured bunch took off their tops and performed a mini conga around the deserted section.
Flashes of lightning and cracks of thunder followed. It was enough to send the Greek match officials on to the pitch half an hour before kick-off to test the run of the ball. There were parts of the surface that were comically unplayable and bordering on the dangerous.
But the weather made for a great leveller. "It was a brave decision from the referee to go ahead with it," said O'Neill. "But we have to be realistic, the conditions were probably something of a help to us."
O'Neill had made four changes from the first leg, with full-backs Craig Sives and Enda Stevens, and midfielders Thomas Stewart and Chris Turner left out with Sunday's derby against Bohemians in mind. In came Pat Flynn, Danny Murphy, Billy Dennehy and Paddy Kavanagh.
In a scrappy contest, the grinders in green and white came to the fore, with Stephen Rice digging into the midfield exchanges and the experienced back four throwing their weight about, conscious that the pitch was slowing the pace of Juve passes. Murphy's know-how, in particular, shone through.
The rain eased in the 15 minutes before the interval, by which point a speculative Gary Twigg shot had been gathered by Marco Storari to give the Irish a frisson of excitement.
Rovers were containing well, and could have grabbed the lead when a long Bradley free was headed across the goal by Dan Murray towards a posse of team-mates, but the ball skidded off the surface and behind, with the outstretched leg of Dennehy inches away.
That said, the Hoops could as easily have fallen behind shortly after when their first leg tormentor, Amauri -- part of an unchanged starting XI -- shook off Aidan Price and was afforded a clear sight of goal, before dragging his effort tamely wide. Level at the break.
There was a novel aspect to this game for Modena, with Juve followers from the region flocking to the club's temporary home for the evening. They had mobbed the team bus when it arrived, and were desperate to see Del Piero. After the resumption, they got their wish with the World Cup-winner replacing Diego. There was a less rapturous reception for the two new Rovers arrivals, Turner and Stewart.
Juve regained the initiative from the outset. Rovers rode their luck in a hairy period, with Mannus denying Marchisio and then Amauri heading straight at the 'keeper when left unmarked from the resultant corner.
When Mannus left his station in another scramble, Momo Sissoko failed to breach a mass of defenders.
The momentum was with Delneri's charges, yet they would need something from the top drawer to break the deadlock.
There was no glaring signs of danger when Murray committed a soft foul on Amauri 30 yards from goal. Del Piero changed that with an 'A list' contribution that smashed into the net off the underside of the crossbar. Magic.
Not enough, however, to dampen Rovers' spirits. On this night, after their European adventure, nothing could.
Juventus -- Storari; Motta, Chiellini, Bonucci, De Ceglie; Pepe, Sissoko, Marchisio, Lanzafame; Diego (Del Piero 45), Amauri (Trezeguet 81).
Shamrock Rovers -- Mannus; Flynn, Price, Murray, Murphy; Kavanagh (Stewart 45), Chambers (Turner 45), Bradley, Rice (Bayly 60), Dennehy; Twigg.
REF -- G Daloukas (Greece).