Hoops ride their luck in thriller
Sligo Rovers 0 Shamrock Rovers 1
BATTLING Shamrock Rovers maintained their title challenge with a hard-fought victory at the Showgrounds.
A fortunate goal against the run of play shortly before half-time proved the difference between the teams, with the visitors twice clearing the ball off their own line in the second half as they clung on for the win.
The Hoops enjoyed a lively start, but the opening goal came against the run of play on 41 minutes.
Initially, the Bit O'Red were disappointed to concede a soft corner and enraged to concede a soft goal from the set-piece.
Kieran Marty Waters' inswinging delivery was dangerous, but Sligo had enough players in the box to deal with it. No-one did so, however, and the ball bounced off the unlucky Alan Keane (right) and into the net.
Hoops boss Trevor Croly said: "There was a bit of fortune to the goal, but it was a quality ball in and that gives you a chance to get that bit of luck and it went for us.
"I thought we deserved the win. First half we created chances, Ronan (Finn) had a really good chance. Second half, Sligo came on to us as you would expect in the Showgrounds.
"But I thought there was some excellent defending there, clearing balls off the line and getting bodies in front of the ball, so I am delighted with the result."
Captain Keane was back in the Sligo Rovers line-up after missing the last four games through injury.
And the home side got a further boost as Raffaele Cretaro was passed fit to take his place on the bench after three months out of action, while Gavin Peers took part in the warm-up as he continues his recovery from the cruciate knee injury picked up in the FAI Cup final last November.
But it was the Hoops who started brighter, and they should have been in front on 12 minutes when Ryan Brennan capitalised on a mistake in the Rovers defence and teed up Finn, who dragged his shot across goal and wide.
The hosts started to get on top as Aaron Greene, Seamus Conneely and Danny North all had shots on goal in the 15 minutes that followed.
Former Bit O'Red hero Jason McGuinness almost scored for his former team when trying to cut out a dangerous Ross Gaynor cross, but Barry Murphy spared the defender's blushes.
Somewhat ironically, 60 seconds later, the home side were taking the ball out of their own net from the deflection off the unfortunate Keane.
Sligo upped the tempo at the start of the second half, and will wonder how they did not equalise after creating some clear-cut chances in the third quarter.
Firstly, McGuinness blocked Keane's left-foot shot 60 seconds after the restart, before Keane, John Russell and Conneely brilliantly combined to tee up Greene, whose volley was taken off the line by Conor Kenna on 58 minutes.
From the resulting corner, Evan McMillan headed goalwards only for Finn to clear the ball when a goal looked certain.
North, Conneely and Russell continued to lead the attack, but it was Keane who had possibly the best chance to level it, when he headed Greene's pinpoint cross wide.
The Hoops were reduced to 10 men in the closing stages, when former Sligo winger Gary McCabe picked up two bookings in three minutes.
But the visitors weathered the storm and almost claimed a second at the death when substitute Eamon Zayed got on the end of Simon Madden's pull-back, only to be denied by David Cawley's superb block.
Sligo Rovers – Rogers, Keane (Odhiambo 73), McMillan, Henderson (Spillane 70), Gaynor, Conneely, Cawley, Russell, O'Conor (Ledwith 64), Greene, North.
Shamrock Rovers – Murphy, Madden, Kenna, McGuinness, Cornwall, McCabe, Robinson, Finn, Brennan (Bayly 90+3), Waters (O'Connor 73), Kilduff (Zayed 81).
Ref – G Kelly (Cork)