Derry City 1-1 Sligo Rovers
Derry City came from behind at the Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium on Friday night to draw with Sligo Rovers as Max Mata netted his fifth of the season for the Bit O’Red.
Rovers went ahead in the first half courtesy of the New Zealand international, with Derry defender Ciaran Coll equalising in the second half.
Ruaidhri Higgins’ side were the league’s only unbeaten side coming into tonight’s game at the Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium.
With three wins from their opening five games, the Candystripes are the league’s form team alongside Bohemian, who occupied top spot earlier on Friday.
The Bit O’Red came from 2-0 down against Cork City to draw 2-2 at The Showgrounds on Saturday last, with Max Mata’s late penalty rescuing a point for Rovers.
Russell made three changes to his side following the draw. John Mahon returned from suspension to replace Eanna Clancy, while Bogdan Vastsuk made his first start in place of Faroese international Stefan Radosavljevic.
Niall Morahan returned to the team in place of Lukas Browning.
Higgins made one change to the side that drew 0-0 with Dundalk last weekend. Mark Connolly is sidelined with an injury sustained in that game and was replaced by Fulham loanee Ollie O’Neil.
Given their impressive start to the season, it was no surprise to see the hosts take charge of early proceedings.
Ryan Graydon couldn’t connect with a cross from Ben Doherty seconds into the game, with Rovers forced into some early defending.
Jamie McGonigle fired over two minutes later after Doherty managed to beat Johan Brannefalk to get the cross in.
It was backs to the walls for Rovers as Derry piled the pressure on. And, there was early controversy as the hosts were left frustrated by a refereeing decision.
After a foul outside the box, the referee appeared to play advantage, and just as McGonigle was about to shoot on goal, Adriano Reale blew up for a foul outside the box.
Rovers’ John Mahon was booked for the challenge, but the resulting free-kick came to nothing for the home side.
Having survived the onslaught from the hosts, Rovers found their feet as Fabrice Hartmann dazzled.
And with their first meaningful opportunity, Rovers went ahead.
A well worked move saw Hartmann slip, but hold on to possession and work his way past a number of players.
Former Derry City man Will Fitzgerald found Reece Hutchinson who had burst down the left wing.
The Cheltenham loanee’s crosses are a lethal weapon in Rovers’ arsenal this season, and this proved to be the case again on 25 minutes as Mata got his head to the cross to fire Rovers into the lead.
There was a lengthy delay towards the end of the first-half after Johan Brannefalk sustained an ankle injury.
Candystripes captain Patrick McEleney dragged his effort wide of the post in injury time, but Rovers held onto their lead at the half-way point.
Russell was forced to take Karl O’Sullivan off at half-time, minutes after he’d come on for Brannefalk, as the Limerick native also picked up an injury.
Defender John Mahon was also replaced as he picked up that yellow card early on.
This wasn’t a lead that John Russell’s side were going to surrender easily, and the hosts were going to have to work extremely hard to break down Rovers’ defence, even with those changes forced upon Russell at half-time.
Shane McEleney had to get his leg in the way after Hartmann’s dangerous ball forward almost fell to the onrushing Bogdan Vastsuk.
Will Patching tried to find the net on 65 minutes, but Eanna Clancy got in the way to force it wide for a Derry corner.
The frustrations of the home side were growing, particularly as Rovers were engaging in some of the dark arts of the game to try and frustrate their opponents even further.
But, the Candystripes got their own back on 81 minutes when they were back on level terms.
Ben Doherty’s corner was expertly headed past Luke McNicholas by Coll.
The celebrations were almost cut short seconds later as Vastsuk broke down the other end and with just Brian Maher to beat in goals, the Estonian dragged his shot wide.
Frank Liivak worked space for himself in the 94th minute, but Maher in the Derry goals was well placed to make the save.
The home crowd desperately urged their side on in seven minutes of added time, but neither side could find a winner.
Rovers have a weekend off next week due to the international break, but Nando Pijnaker, Max Mata and Stefan Radosavljevic are all on duty with their national teams, while Bogdan Vastsuk is on standby for Estonia.
Derry City: Brian Maher, Ronan Boyce (Cian Kavanagh, 79), Ciaran Coll, Shane McEleney (Evan McLaughlin, 88), Ben Doherty, Sadou Diallo, Will Patching (Jordan McEneff, 67), Patrick McEleney, Ollie O’Neill (Brandon Kavanagh, 67), Ryan Graydon, Jamie McGonigle.
Sligo Rovers: Luke McNicholas, Johan Brannefalk (Karl O’Sullivan, 41 [Lukas Browning, 46]), John Mahon (Eanna Clancy, 46), Nando Pijnaker, Reece Hutchinson, Fabrice Hartmann, Greg Bolger, Niall Morahan (Frank Liivak, 74), Will Fitzgerald, Bogdan Vastsuk (Kailin Barlow, 83), Max Mata.
Referee: Adriano Reale.