SWIMMING against the tide of history – that's the case for the players of Shamrock Rovers when they take on the might of Partizan Belgrade in the Europa League in Dublin tonight.
In six games against club teams from Serbia over the decades, the Irish boys have always been outwitted by the classy Serbs. A club side from Ireland has never managed even a draw, or scored a goal in those six clashes, all against Red Star Belgrade.
The last time that one of our entrants in Europe faced a Serbian side (Cork City against Red Star in 2006), their opponents did the required in the first leg in Ireland (a 1-0 victory) and then took Cork apart once they got them to Belgrade, and Partizan would settle for a repeat display in this tussle with Rovers as they seek a place in the group stages of the Europa League.
But Rovers midfielder Stephen Rice reckons that his side can end that barren run in front of goal for Irish teams and have the potential to score against Partizan. “We feel we have a chance to do something special here, not just for Shamrock Rovers but for the country and for Irish football,” he said. “We go into every game believing we can win, if you don't have that attitude then there's no point in turning up, I feel. We proved last season and this year that we can compete in Europe and that we have a chance of beating a top team in Europe.
“We're under no illusions. Partizan are a top side, but this is the test we want to have, and we'll give it everything we have. “The important thing is that we don't concede here tonight. If we don't concede, I feel we have the quality up front and in the wide areas to trouble them, as we showed in Copenhagen. “We know we can create chances against top sides, we did that home and away against Copenhagen.
“If we don't concede I know we will create chances, and if we do that there's no better man than Gary Twigg to stick them away, hopefully the chances will fall to him tonight and he will take them. “We have to keep the tie alive for the second leg and the best way to do that is to score against them and see what they are made of,” added Rice, who made his Euro debut with rivals Bohemians back in 2005. ARMOUR Rovers manager Michael O'Neill went to Belgrade to spy on Partizan when the Serbian league began last weekend and their 5-0 dismissal of their opponents gave O'Neill food for thought, but the former Northern Ireland international has also spotted some chinks in the Serbian armour.
“We watched a DVD of Partizan on Tuesday and they're a really, really good side. We know it's a tough game and a big challenge,” Rice says. “But there are some things we feel we can exploit, we feel there are areas where we can get at them. “Every team has a weakness, no matter how good they are as a team. “We have to play to our strengths and find their weaknesses, and the gaffer has identified parts of their game where we can at least try and hurt them. The gaffer at our club is very good at doing that.” Rovers have drawn a great deal of comfort from their dealings with Copenhagen. The Danes advanced past Rovers handily enough in the end, 3-0 winners, but Copenhagen looked weak at times and their display in the first leg of the play-off round in the Champions League on Tuesday – Copenhagen lost 3-1 at home to Czech side Plzen – was also food for thought.
“We had Copenhagen rattled for a while in the last game but that's gone now, we have to move on. “If we do look back we can draw a lot of positives from both legs against them, but Partizan is another big test now. HURT “They're both big sides in terms of European football and their experience, but we can try and get at Partizan in the way we did against the Danish team,” added Rice.
“We are at the level now where, if chances come along, we have to take them. Top club teams hurt you because they take their chances, Juventus did it last season and Copenhagen did it to us this season.” Rice is one of the players who's hoping to get the nod for O'Neill's starting XI tonight. Ken Oman – so impressive away to Copenhagen – is still out injured so Dan Murray and Craig Sives will man the central defensive berths again, but O'Neill has some calls to make in midfield. “Very few players are guaranteed a place in the team, especially in midfield, so we're all preparing for the match on the basis that we're playing. “We all have to be clued in and be ready to play if called upon. We all want to play and we have to be sure we're ready. The important thing is that everyone in the squad knows their role and can do the job if asked,” said Rice.