O'Neill eager to wrap up title with game to spare
AS the players of Shamrock Rovers warmed down in PAOK'S Toumba Stadium last Thursday, their band of travelling supporters sang excitedly about tonight's trip to Belfield.
It's rare that a visit to the home of the Students generates such enthusiasm amongst League of Ireland fans, but then this is no ordinary evening. With a victory, Michael O'Neill's men will secure back-to-back titles with a game to spare.
The learning in the Europa League will go on but, in their own grade, the Hoops are top of the class. Sligo's win over Bohemians reduced the gap to one point, meaning that the title race will go to the final day of the season if the defending champions take anything less than three points from the Belfield Bowl.
However, with whipping boys Galway United visiting Tallaght on Friday, Sligo boss Paul Cook was under no illusions about the bigger picture when asked if his team had any hope.
"Ah no," he replied, "You have to be realistic. You're asking Galway to go to Tallaght and win, or to get something off them. It's not going to happen with the season Galway have had."
Still, after a nerve-jangling conclusion to last year, those of a Hoops persuasion will be hoping for a straightforward resolution this time around.
UCD have caused a few shocks on their own turf this year, and will come into this game fresh after a two-week break. With the focus of the TV cameras and the large travelling support set to be focused on O'Neill's side, Martin Russell's charges have nothing to lose.
However, they have suffered terribly against Rovers this year, with an aggregate score of 15-2 from their three league meetings to date.
"They have been on the end of a couple of heavy defeats to us this year, and will want to make up for that," stressed O'Neill. "We will have to be clinical on the night.
"This is a huge game for the club. If we win it, we win the league and that is obviously our aim. We don't want it to have to go to the last game of the season, so we will want to wrap it up against UCD."
The Northern Irishman will freshen up his team, with some of the players who were rested against PAOK set to come to the fore. They should include Rohan Ricketts, Gary McCabe and Ronan Finn.
O'Neill's options are the envy of every other manager in the league, although reaching another landmark will accelerate talk about his uncertain future. But first, there is work to do.