Hoops aim to turn up heat in Serb cauldron
OUT of the frying pan and into the fire.
The parachute from the Champions League into the Europa League was supposed to provide Shamrock Rovers with a kinder route to fame and fortune.
Instead, Michael O'Neill's side face the sternest test of their European adventure in the sweltering heat of Belgrade tonight (kick-off 7.30 Irish time).
They are just 90 minutes away from the promised land of the group stages and a €1m windfall. However, that short time frame does no justice to the scale of the task. It will feel like longer if the League of Ireland champions are to defy the odds and progress.
Logic suggests that this Europa League tie should end in victory for Partizan Belgrade, but then anyone who applied that principle to the half-time analysis of the first leg in Dublin would have expected the game to be already over.
Partizan were so dominant they could have made the second leg a formality. From the restart, Rovers grew in belief, altered their shape and grabbed a draw that could have turned into a win with calmer application in the final third. It was a comeback which breathed life into this journey.
They know what lies in store here. While Partizan came into last Thursday's first leg with a positive approach, there will be an added intensity to their play tonight with more than 10,000 Serbs cheering them on in warm conditions.
It touched 41 degrees yesterday afternoon in the Serbian capital and similar temperatures are predicted for today. The game kicks off at 8.30 local time, by which time it should have cooled to around the 25-degree mark. Still, it's tough for the Irish complexion, although midfielder Stephen Rice pointed out that Rovers triumphed in the humidity of Israel 12 months ago when, by coincidence, the first game in Dublin was also a 1-1 draw.
There is a gulf in quality between Bnei Yehuda and Partizan Belgrade, however, and a marked difference in terms of expectation and fervour of support.
O'Neill saw at first-hand a fortnight ago just how vocal and intimidating the Partizan faithful can be, yet he expects his charges to thrive in that environment -- and perhaps turn the situation in their favour.
"The atmosphere can help us," said the Northern Irishman. "As an opposing player, it's nice to come and play in that situation.
"Looking at the balance of the tie, the pressure is on Partizan. They did not expect to be here -- they expected to be in the Champions League. So they are dealing with the disappointment of that right now.
"Now, they're in a tie that is finely balanced, and their own supporters will be demanding that they progress. We have everything to gain and the atmosphere is something the players are going to relish."
Partizan, seeking a fifth successive domestic title, shipped an injury-time goal to suffer a shock league defeat in Uzice last weekend.
Combine that with their Champions League exit at the hands of Racing Genk and their panicked reaction to conceding a Gary McCabe wonderstrike last Thursday, and it's apparent that they have vulnerabilities. That has certainly buoyed the Dubliners.
"Gary's goal showed they can be got at," said Chris Turner. "I think it's very much possible. You just have to look at the first game and where we got joy."
The optimism must be tempered by personnel changes. Partizan boss Aleksandar Stanojevic now has key playmaker Zvonomir Vukic at his disposal.
Rovers had earmarked the Serbian international as a danger man before the first leg until they learned he was out through suspension.
Vukic will spearhead a midfield diamond that will support their front two. O'Neill would like to have the disciplined Conor McCormack there to shackle him, but the Louthman damaged medial ligaments last week and faces a spell on the sidelines.
Rice is likely to drop back and sit in front of the back four with Turner, who was a half-time sub in Dublin, coming into midfield. The fit-again Stephen O'Donnell is another option, and the impact of subs Gary O'Neill and Ciaran Kilduff in the initial meeting has given O'Neill something else to ponder.
O'Neill boldly switched to an attack-minded 4-4-2 in that game; the 4-5-1 he prefers in Europe is likely to be in force from the start here, with Gary Twigg again ploughing a lone furrow.
"Obviously we have to score to progress," stressed O'Neill, Partizan having the away goal in the bank. "But equally if we lose a goal, the situation doesn't really change. We still have to score.
"This team has an awful lot of quality and we have to be ready to deal with that. Equally we know our own strengths -- and at the right times we will have to utilise them, and maximise whatever opportunities we get. We will have to play in a system where we are comfortable, and we have to make sure we stifle them in the right areas."
Concentration will be a huge aspect. Partizan have demonstrated they can open up the Rovers rearguard with frequency. Additionally, McCormack's setback means that the spine of the team is weakened further.
The loss of Alan Mannus to Scotland and Ken Oman to injury means that the formula which passed the first test in Estonia has been tinkered with due to matters beyond O'Neill's control.
Nevertheless, the other players rose to the challenge last week and there is confidence in the camp that they can produce another big effort for the small pocket of travelling supporters and the fans back home who will have to watch on the internet as no Irish broadcaster came forward with enough cash to secure live TV rights.
"Our players have been fantastic," continued O'Neill. "They have shown great application to play the way we have asked them. We have contested every game we have played in, and those experiences will always be invaluable."
The learning process will deliver a serious short-term dividend if the unheralded Irish visitors can find the key to a different world.
Shamrock Rovers (probable) -- Thompson, Sullivan, Sives, Murray, Stevens; McCabe, Rice, Turner, Finn, Dennehy; Twigg
FK Partizan (probable) -- Stojkovic, Rankovic, Rnic, Ivanov, Stankovic; Tomic, Medo, Vukic, Ilic, Eduardo Jovancic.