Rovers facing daunting task in Copenhegen
SHAMROCK ROVERS board a flight to Denmark this morning ahead of their Champions League clash with the best team in Scandinavia -- the toughest opponent they could possibly have drawn at the penultimate stage of qualifying for the biggest tournament in club football.
The scale of the challenge needs to be put in context. If FC Copenhagen collect a fourth successive league title this season, they won't need to bother with the preliminary stages in 2012.
The Danish champions will get an automatic ticket to the group stages from now on -- mainly because of the exploits of the capital's foremost representatives.
Last year, FCK progressed to the round of 16, taking 10 points from a group topped by Barcelona. Pep Guardiola's superstars could only manage a 1-1 draw at the Parken Stadium and left it late before wrapping up a 2-0 victory at the Nou Camp. A certain Lionel Messi scored all of the eventual winners' goals in those two meetings.
Carlo Ancelotti's Chelsea ended Copenhagen's interest, although the Danes secured a respectable scoreless draw at Stamford Bridge after a 2-0 home loss effectively ended their chances of progression.
After rubbing shoulders with the game's elite, you can understand why the natives will be expecting a comfortable win when Shamrock Rovers come to town. A 1-0 victory over two legs against the Estonian champions won't inspire fear in Copenhagen.
That's probably no harm for the Dubliners, though, with manager Michael O'Neill agreeing last week that Irish sides are generally more comfortable in the role of underdog. They face a completely different type of pressure this week.
If they somehow manage to produce a huge upset and eliminate the Danish champions, the only team ranked higher which they could draw in the final qualifying round is Glasgow Rangers, and they are only in a lofty position because of their unlikely run to the UEFA Cup final in 2008.
Given the familiarity with the ailing Scottish game, Ally McCoist's side would arguably present a less daunting task than the 90 minutes in Copenhagen tomorrow, and the return leg in Tallaght next Tuesday.
So, what exactly lies in store for the League of Ireland champions?
A crumb of encouragement for the Hoops is that Copenhagen have changed management over the summer, with Norwegian Stale Solbakken lured to the Bundesliga where he has taken charge of FC Koln.
In his six years in charge at the Parken Stadium, Solbakken delivered five league titles and presided over their progress in Europe. So, he is a hard act to follow.
Swede Roland Nilsson has stepped into the breach. His name might ring a bell. Nilsson had stints in England with Sheffield Wednesday and Coventry in the 1990s and had a brief stint in the hot seat with the latter when they were based at Highfield Road. That came just after relegation from the Premier League and he was sacked when Coventry slipped out of the play-off picture.
It was a tough education, so Nilsson returned home to learn the managerial trade, firstly spending five years with GAIS and then stepping up to to take the reins at Malmo.
He delivered a Swedish title at the third attempt and Copenhagen subsequently moved for his services. Nilsson is at the early stages of his tenure, with just two league games under his belt; a comfortable away victory at SonderjyskE was followed by a 2-2 home draw with Odense last weekend.
The pull of Germany has also weakened Copenhagen on the personnel front. Defenders Oscar Wendt and Zdenek Pospech departed for the Bundesliga as their contracts had expired.
The loss of skipper and inspirational homegrown midfielder William Kvist to Stuttgart was softened somewhat by receiving a fee believed to be in the region of €3.5m. With Jesper Gronkjaer retiring and another member of the rearguard, Mikael Antonsson, departing for Bologna, some experienced figures have departed. In particular, they have suffered losses in defensive areas.
However, the flip side is that they have retained key attacking figures, particularly the prolific Senegalese forward Dame N'Doye, who has attracted suitors from further afield. Brazilian midfielder Claudemir is another to look out for.
Copenhagen weren't going to just sit back and let players go without replacing them, so they were able to shell out money for Norwegian international midfielder Christian Grindheim and another Senegalese attacker -- Pape Pate Diouf. Icelandic international Ragnar Sigurdsson was recruited from Gothenberg. Nilsson could field a side full of players with senior caps if he wanted.
Shamrock Rovers supporters and players loved every minute of the Europa League encounter with Juventus 12 months ago, yet the only slight disappointment was that the game in Italy was moved from Turin to Modena. A fine stadium nonetheless, but compact enough by Juventus standards.
The Parken Stadium is up there with Europe's best, however. With a 38,000 capacity, it is also the home for the Danish national team and has staged multiple concerts. U2, Michael Jackson, David Bowie and the Rolling Stones are just some of the artists to have performed there. Earlier this year, they even managed to get over 36,000 into the ground for a handball match -- it's a popular sport in this part of the world.
Over 20,000 are expected to turn out for the visit of Shamrock Rovers. Whatever happens, it promises to be a memorable experience for the Hoops contingent which leaves Dublin on a charter flight at 9.0 this morning.