Rovers not here to make up the numbers, insists O'Neill
Published 15/09/2011 | 05:00
A special day has dawned. One which many in Irish football never expected to see.
Group stage European football takes place on this soil for the very first time when big-spending Rubin Kazan roll into Tallaght Stadium to take on a Shamrock Rovers team that are still coming to terms with the weight of their achievement in reaching this far.
They know that reality is bound to rear its ugly head at some stage. In a world where money often dictates success, it generally does. Naturally, they are keen to delay that moment.
"I would imagine that, from a financial viewpoint, we're the club with the smallest budget to reach the group stages of a European competition," said manager Michael O'Neill, after delivering a knowing smile when asked if progression from a difficult group was possible.
"While we would never say that we are just here to fulfil the fixtures, we have to be realistic. I'm not going to say that it's not possible, but I'm not going to say it's possible either. People have to recognise the achievement of the players in getting here without burdening them with other expectations."
The occasion in Dublin 24 will naturally deliver pressure, though. With a full house -- bar the away section where Rubin will have just 50 fans -- the significance of the fixture is sure to provide a lively atmosphere.
This Rovers team have performed with credit in six European games this year but now their efforts will be broadcast to an even wider audience. It could be life-changing for some of the protagonists.
Midfielder Stephen Rice cites the focus on concentration as the biggest difference between domestic fare and dalliances with the big guns. Mental strength can overcome shortcomings in the technical department and O'Neill will be looking for the same level of unity and organisation that was apparent in the famous elimination of Partizan Belgrade.
"We've played 10 games in Europe in my tenure and I don't think we've ever been totally outclassed in any of them," stressed O'Neill. "Past experience gives us a belief that we can go a stage further and take points from these games. It would be foolhardy to say we want 'X' amount of points. But I believe we can get results."
O'Neill reckons that Rubin Kazan are a step up from Partizan Belgrade and has spent the past two days poring over DVDs and working on them with his squad. He has drawn extra information from a friend who works for Manchester City about a club who have been splashing the cash in recent months, including a €13m payment for Finnish midfielder Alexei Eremenko, who is cup-tied for this game.
With 12 different nationalities in their ranks, Rubin operate on a different planet. The anticipation in their homeland is that they will comfortably brush aside a semi-professional club with running costs of just €2.3m a year.
Although it might have been lost in translation, coach Kurban Berdyev seemed sceptical about the Hoops' part-time status. To be fair, only one of O'Neill's likely starting XI -- Rice -- actually has a day job, so it's not as if his players have been juggling other commitments this week.
Indeed, the main concern from their point of view is a crowded schedule of games. This is their third match in six days and O'Neill was quick to point out after Monday's draw with St Patrick's Athletic that no other team in the Europa League was asked to play a league fixture in that close proximity.
Nevertheless, Rice feels there is freshness around the camp despite the hectic build-up.
"It helps that they are all massive games," said the Dubliner. "And if you look at the squad, we do have the strength and depth to deal with it."
The one area where the League of Ireland champions are short of options is the centre of defence, with O'Neill unable to rest centre-halves Dan Murray and Craig Sives until Ken Oman returns from injury.
They are likely to be shielded by a five- man midfield against a Rubin side who had ambitions of making the Champions League only to lose out to Lyon in the final qualifying round.
O'Neill's biggest dilemma is the selection of his engine-room performers. Rice and Chris Turner should start; ex-Manchester United youth Conor McCormack is available again and may get the nod due to an aptitude for European games which is attributed to a stint in Italy with Triestina.
However, playmaker Ronan Finn and Belgrade hero Stephen O'Donnell also have a strong case for inclusion.
New arrival Rohan Ricketts is short of match sharpness, yet the ex-Spurs man has lived up to his pedigree with flashes of quality in his three outings since joining on a free transfer. He is in competition with Billy Dennehy for a left wing berth.
Gary McCabe scored a brilliant first-leg goal against Partizan, yet he might lose out to Karl Sheppard on the other flank.
Rubin will field a strong XI, although they have endured some complications in the build-up, with Turkish midfielder Gokdeniz Karadeniz only due to arrive this morning after problems with his visa. Perhaps he didn't expect to be coming to Ireland either.
Whatever happens, a historic evening beckons. The aim for Shamrock Rovers is to ensure that the game doesn't become a footnote.
Shamrock Rovers -- Thompson, Sullivan, Sives, Murray, Stevens; Turner, Rice, McCormack; Sheppard, Ricketts; Twigg
Rubin Kazan -- Ryzhikov; Kuzmin, Navas, Bocchetti, Ansaldi; Kasaev, Noboa; Martins, Ryazantsev, Natcho; Valdez.
Shamrock Rovers v Rubin Kazan, Live, TV3, 6.0