Chilling test for O'Neill
Rovers boss admits his side face a daunting challenge in icy Kazan
OUR clubs, back in the day, have played the likes of AC Milan, Real Madrid and Ajax, even taken on Manchester United and Liverpool at their peak.
But this evening, amid the snows of Russia, Shamrock Rovers FC will face one of the sternest challenges ever faced by an Irish team in European competition.
The Rovers players will line out tonight wearing skins (well tights, really), gloves and woolly hats to combat the sub-zero temperatures, as it was -5 at kick-off time here last night, but even a strong dose of kryptonite and a lake of holy water might not be enough to help Rovers keep Rubin Kazan at bay.
The name of FC Rubin Kazan may not make the ground shake like Ajax does -- they only played in Europe for the very first time in 2004, by which stage Rovers had already played 52 games in European competition.
But they face a tough challenge in taking on a Rubin side who have been impressive in the Europa League and the Russian league this season, with just two defeats in their last 12 games and only one home defeat in 10 since last July.
Tottenham, Spartak Moscow and Lyon have all failed to win in this city deep in the Russian heartland, which is technically in Tatarstan, so it's fair to say that Rubin are decent on home turf.
Rovers had some logistical issues too -- despite chartering a plane which spared the players the energy-sapping travel endured by the St Pats' players on their trip to neighbouring Kazakhstan in the summer, Rovers still had little time to prepare as they'd like for the game, with delays at immigration in Kazan and then traffic problems while entering the city.
There's also the issue of a four-hour time difference, which creates havoc for the body clock of a footballer in terms of sleeping and eating.
And that's before we mention the cold and the snow, which covers the entire city of 1.1m people. The Rovers players wore snoods and all manner of protective clothing as they trained in the Tsentralni Stadion, the central stadium in the city, but the stunning backdrop of golden-domed churches and snow-covered hills can't hide the chilling wind that sweeps into the open stadium and bites the skin.
"It will be extremely difficult and there are many factors that will make it extremely difficult -- not only the travel and obviously the climate but also the quality of Kazan, the biggest obstacle we'll face despite other difficulties that we have to overcome. This will be if not the most difficult, certainly as difficult as any game we would have in the group," said Rovers' manager, Michael O'Neill, before last night's training session in the match stadium in Kazan.
Rubin's quality shone through in their 1-0 win over Spurs here in Russia, and recent games in the domestic league -- they beat Aiden McGeady's Spartak Moscow last month and finished up the first phase of the Russian league, which is now on a three-month break, with wins over Moscow sides Dinamo and CSKA.
It's to the credit of the Dublin club that some of their better displays have come away from home in Europe, most notably that win in Serbia over Partizan Belgrade, and it's also significant that Rovers have managed to score away to Tottenham and PAOK.
"It has been hugely beneficial for us to come here by charter. I suppose the downside to that was we travelled the day before the game and we have to adjust to a four-hour time difference 24 hours before the game. It is hard to gauge where the players are at at the moment," O'Neill admitted.
"You just have to apply yourself as best you can - the preparation for this game has all been done in Dublin in the last three-to-four days.
"You can't prepare for the cold, there's no way to deal with that or any way we could recreate that situation for 90 minutes.
"So we are going into the unknown a little bit - I believe temperatures could be as low as -9 tonight - and that would be something certainly alien to us and to me as a player. I never experienced that as a player.
"But the club and the team will be as well prepared as possible, given the circumstances in that we are essentially out of season."
Some choices have been made for O'Neill in terms of squad selection, as defender Craig Sives and midfielder Conor McCormack were left at home as they've undergone surgery.
The Rovers boss must now decide whether to reinstate Gary Twigg or keep faith with Karl Sheppard, who did so well in the last away game in Europe.