Hoops hoping to profit from Greek deficit
GREECE is the last place to go looking for money right now, but that's the mission for Shamrock Rovers tonight.
Michael O'Neill's side may well be crowned league champions next Monday, yet in a financial sense victory in this Europa League tie would be worth more to the club.
The prize for a win in the group stages of this competition is €140,000, with just €100,000 on offer for their efforts over a 36-game domestic season. A draw is worth €70,000, which is serious cash for the League of Ireland champions.
Realistically, the two meetings with PAOK Salonika offer the best chance of that windfall. With Tottenham Hotspur and Rubin Kazan the marquee clubs in this group, these are the games where the Hoops will feel they have a chance.
Don't confuse that with thinking this might be easy, however.
PAOK are clear favourites to win this game, and rightly so. They have an established tradition of competing at this level and boast a side with a fair sprinkling of internationals.
For the Greek title contenders, back-to-back games with the underdogs of this group present a viable opportunity to put themselves in a strong position to progress. For O'Neill and his team, this is another foray into a lion's den.
With a mood of public unrest sweeping the country due to austerity measures, the natives will be looking for some cheer. Yesterday, some of the Thessaloniki citizens took to the streets in protest, while skips were set on fire and public services were unavailable. It's an unusual time to be in this part of the world.
Over 15,000 locals are expected in the Toumba Stadium to create an intense and intimidating atmosphere.
At least the Rovers players are well rested. Unlike previous group games, they've had a week to prepare. Nevertheless, they are under no illusions about the scale of the challenge, with defender Pat Sullivan tackling the perception that these encounters might be a softer touch.
"That's from the outside perspective," stressed the Belgrade hero. "When you take stock and look at the teams individually, there is no team you can look at and think 'they're the two games we're going to get something from'.
"We've seen them play and we know they're not weak, so this will be very difficult in its own right."
The good news for the visitors is that PAOK will send a depleted side into action this evening. They are missing five players through injury, including their best player, Uruguayan international Pablo Garcia.
O'Neill dispatched Jim Magilton (hot favourite to become the next Northern Ireland manager) and Andy Myler to watch their 0-0 draw with OFI Crete last weekend. It was a fixture with a theme that is typical for PAOK at this moment in time. They enjoyed tons of possession without a cutting edge.
With a strong midfield three, they will own the ball for long periods tonight, with O'Neill expecting the attacking width to come from Brazilian full-backs Etto and Alves Lina. For Rovers, who will line out 4-5-1, the key is to keep concentration and break with purpose.
"Maybe if we can bring a different dimension, we can attack a little more," says midfielder Ronan Finn. "We worked very hard defensively in the first two games -- especially in the Kazan game where maybe we were a bit anxious. But now we know the standard we are at and the quality of the teams we are playing against, and we can adapt to it."
O'Neill is satisfied that his team are in good physical shape following a welcome recuperation period after last week's win over Derry, which has put them in control of the league.
Monday's trip to UCD could be a celebration but, rather than being a distraction, the Northern Irishman feels that the relative comfort of the league situation will lift pressure from their shoulders heading into tonight.
"The players realise they are one game away from retaining the title and that has led to a positive mindset," he said. "The preparation for this game has been huge for us. However, our players are now playing their 54th game of the season whereas PAOK have played six league games. The freshness we anticipate they will have is something we will have to deal with."
Rotation has been a common feature of the Rovers approach in recent weeks, and there will be more of the same. Craig Sives has shaken off a problem so will start, but Gary O'Neill misses out. A key decision is the choice between Rohan Ricketts and Billy Dennehy on the left side of midfield. Considering that Dennehy is suspended for Belfield, he should get the nod.
O'Neill's opposite number, Romanian Laszlo Boloni has warned his team about the dangers of complacency.
"Everyone says Shamrock Rovers will be in fourth position in this group," he said. "They don't have a point yet but they have played the two strongest teams in the group.
"I've seen their games and they have a lot of enthusiasm and physical presence. They had chances to take some points, and I think they will. I just hope it isn't against us."
PAOK v Shamrock Rovers
Live, 3e, 8.05
Shamrock Rovers (probable) -- Brush, Sullivan, Murray, Sives, Paterson; Rice, O'Donnell, Finn; McCabe, Dennehy; Twigg.