Greeks accept gifts to kill Rovers off
Shamrock Rovers 1
PAOK Salonika 3
THE Tallaght crowd amused themselves in the second half by singing about Greece's financial woes, but it was wealthy PAOK Salonika who went home with three points and a €140,000 reward.
They were patently the better side here without producing a display that would worry either Spurs or Rubin Kazan ahead of the Group A conclusion.
Unfortunately for Michael O'Neill's men, it seems increasingly likely that they will end the group pointless. A daunting trip to Kazan at the end of the month is next on the agenda.
Seasoned Shamrock Rovers fans will never describe a defeat at this stage of the competition as miserable, given the odds which their pride and joy have defied to make it here. Nevertheless, the first half on a muddy evening brought the closest feeling to despair in their 10 European starts in 2011.
There's a repetition about the script at this stage, with Rovers affording the opposition a lead. The variance here was that the new group leaders forged a three-goal advantage with the locals initially looking like a team that had spent last week celebrating title success. By the time O'Neill's men recovered a real competitive edge, it was too late.
He was making no excuses, though. "At times, we were outclassed in the first half," O'Neill conceded. "There's no doubt that fatigue was a factor, but there's a massive gulf in class. These are top sides."
Interestingly, opposite number Laszlo Boloni described the first 45 minutes as the best of his tenure to date. Rovers did register an early strike on target courtesy of Chris Turner, but PAOK quickly seized control. They had already hit the post and been denied a penalty -- Craig Sives blocked with his hand -- when they broke the deadlock in the seventh minute.
With Rovers all at sea, Georgos Georgiadis skipped down the right wing and teed up Dimitris Salpinigidis for a straightforward finish.
Frustratingly for the hosts, there were opportunities to exploit in the period that followed but the distribution was dreadful. Crosses were underhit or overhit when spaces appeared. Pat Sullivan and Billy Dennehy were culpable in a promising spell.
An incident where Stephen O'Donnell and Conor McCormack effectively dispossessed each other summed up a particularly fraught period. All the habits that make O'Neill's men difficult to break down on foreign soil became a hindrance.
"It's more difficult for us to play at home," he admitted, "It's a different challenge to us for to try and attack. Ultimately what you find is that these teams have so much quality, you're vulnerable defensively and they can counter-attack at pace. We played in the wrong areas and asked ourselves to be pressurised."
The second goal was a case in point. McCormack underhit a routine pass and PAOK swooped to work an opportunity for Giorgos Fotakis, who slotted past Ryan Thompson -- the Jamaican was unfortunate after saving well from Alves Lino minutes earlier.
"We gave them goals," admitted the downbeat McCormack, "That's what happens, that's football. You're playing against world-class players."
If that dampened the atmosphere, the trebling of the advantage killed it completely. Again, it was created with the minimum of fuss with Salpinigidis spinning into space to stroke home a Georgiadis cross.
There was activity in the Rovers dugout, with front men Gary Twigg and Ciaran Kilduff stripped before the interval, but O'Neill waited until the break to send them on and switch to 4-4-2 in an attempt to create pressure.
Within seven minutes, it worked. Karl Sheppard, switched from a lone striker berth to the right wing, was hauled down outside the area, and Dennehy stepped up to curl a free-kick around the wall that found its intended destination with the help of the post.
The Hoops' record of bright second-half starts was maintained; they have scored in the first 15 minutes of the second half in their last three group games, and they almost added a second in that timeframe here with Sheppard mistiming his jump when unmarked in the box.
Kilduff's physicality was a thorn in the side of PAOK, and Boloni brought on an extra defender, the towering Sotiris Balafas, to stifle that threat. It sucked the momentum from the comeback and, with the pitch cutting up, the visitors regained some comfort and nearly restored the three-goal lead when a ferocious Vieirinha attempt hit the bar.
Stephen Rice was summoned to recharge the Rovers midfield and was prominent in the final quarter, with heavy legs all round and openings that neither side really had the energy to capitalise on. When PAOK did, Vieirinha blasted wildly over.
"It's been a very long season," said O'Neill. "We were running on empty in the second half at times and the players showed great courage in the second half to go and play."
To their credit, the League of Ireland champions persevered and were close to another goal in injury-time when Kilduff strained to connect with a Sullivan centre and headed goalwards, but it was a couple of inches short and a PAOK man got there first.
A vignette which summed up the nature of the evening.
Shamrock Rovers -- Thompson; Sullivan, Murray, Sives, Stevens; Dennehy, Turner (Kilduff 45), McCormack (Rice 70), O'Donnell, McCabe (Twigg 45); Sheppard.
PAOK Salonika -- Chalkias; Sznaucner, Cirillo, Malezas, Lino; Arias, Lazar; Georgiadis (Apostopopoulos 86), Fotakis (Balafas 64), Vieirinha; Salpinigidis (Papazoglou 89).
Ref -- A Kulbakov (Belarus).