Rovers bid to end Euro goal drought
THE goal for Shamrock Rovers this evening is to procure a result that keeps their dream of historic progress to the Europa League group stages alive. To secure the €1m jackpot, they have to break a worrying habit and find a goalscoring touch against elite opponents.
While the League of Ireland champions have performed with credit in Europe over the past two seasons, they have failed to deliver enough of football's most precious commodity.
A return of just three goals from 720 minutes of action illustrates just how important defensive organisation has been in this sphere.
They need to find some inspiration at the opposite end when they come face to face with Partizan Belgrade in Tallaght this evening.
For Rovers, the parachute into the play-off round of the Europa League was a boost after their Champions League loss to FC Copenhagen. There was an unspoken sense that Europe's second competition offered the best chance to go where no Irish team has gone before.
Serbian champions Partizan arrive with a different perspective. Exiting the Champions League to Racing Genk hurt them badly. They are on a mission to retrieve respect.
Ahead of an intimidating second leg in Belgrade next Thursday, Rovers have to find an outcome in tonight's first leg that will give them hope of an upset.
Avoiding the concession of the dreaded away goal is the immediate priority. Yet, the lesson from last year's dalliance with Juventus, and the recent Copenhagen exercise, is that the underdogs have to capitalise on the precious periods where they are in the ascendancy.
"You have to score when you're on top and the chances come," said skipper Dan Murray yesterday.
"If it's a half-chance, or a really good chance, you have to take them. If you look back at a couple, like (Chris) Turner's header here against Copenhagen (off the bar) or Billy Dennehy's chance over there (saved from close range)... if they go in, then it's a different game.
"And the big lesson, defensively, is to try and not concede from set-pieces. That's what cost us in both legs against Copenhagen."
Finding the balance is the test. The biggest anomaly is that Gary Twigg, the prolific marksman in domestic competition, continues his search for a first European goal.
Ironically enough, O'Neill feels that Europe brings the best out of the Scotsman. But his responsibility is different. As a lone ranger up front, with three central midfielders and two wingers further back, the priority for the 27-year-old is often to hold the ball up and bring others into play rather than find the predator's position.
The alternative is to operate with a second striker, yet O'Neill is unsure if this would represent a more offensive approach than his current strategy.
"The reality is that, at this level, sometimes you can't attack because you don't have the ball.
"We have entered European games this year with five attacking minded players -- Gary, Billy Dennehy, Dean Kelly (who is injured tonight -- Gary McCabe will play instead), Ronan Finn and Chris Turner. In Europe, you can't play any more than that. Would we be more attacking with two strikers and four midfielders? I don't know."
"I'd love to see Gary score at this level. He's more than capable of doing it. The European games have brought out
the best in him, in terms of all-round performance. It seems to motivate him slightly more than what we see sometimes on a weekly basis.
"One thing about Gary is that he doesn't score when you're four or five nil up. Even last Friday night against UCD, the 6-0 win, his was the first goal. All his goals were significant. Others may score five goals in one game against weak opposition, but Gary's not like that."
For O'Neill, there is considerable personal motivation to produce an upset. He is still in contract negotiations with the Rovers board, and while he stresses that both parties want to continue with their arrangement, six months have passed since he said it would be sorted in a matter of weeks.
It is a curious situation. The Northern Irishman is proud of his achievements in Tallaght, and says he would like to continue the progress. But, as it stands, he is free to leave when his three-year contract ends in November.
Solid showings in Europe have been followed by positive displays in the league, with the ship steadied following a rocky period in the aftermath of ex-assistant Trevor Croly's departure.
O'Neill's good friend Jim Magilton has made a positive impact as a temporary replacement, and it looks as though he will stay in the position until the end of this season unless a managerial offer across the water pops up. Beyond that, however, it is unclear what comes next for both parties.
"I'm comfortable with the situation," said O'Neill. "Like anything, there's areas where we have to find some sort of agreement. They're not necessarily of a financial nature. That's where things are."
"I envisage sitting down after this European game and seeing where we're at then. Ultimately, at the end of the three years, it'll be up to others to judge the scale of the job and whether they view it as being successful or not.
"Hopefully, with the progress that's been made in my two-and-a-half years, I'll get the opportunity to continue that."
A positive experience in this Europa League encounter would accelerate the project significantly.
Once more, the odds are heavily stacked against the hosts. Unshipping a Partizan side packed with quality would rank up with anything achieved by an Irish team in the last decade, and the Serbians arrived in Tallaght last night with an air of extreme confidence.
However, O'Neill's men have proved they are capable of creating chances against such opposition. The dream of the promised land can only become possible when they start to take them.
Shamrock Rovers -- Thompson; Sullivan, Murray, Sives, Stevens; McCabe, Turner, McCormack, Finn, Dennehy; Twigg.
Partizan Belgrade -- Stojkovic; Tomic, Rankovic, Ivanov, Volkov; Rnic, Kamara, Babovic; Ilic; Eduardo, Jovancic.