Battling Rovers handed dose of reality
SHAMROCK RVS 0
RUBIN KAZAN 3
THIS was history, not fantasy. For Shamrock Rovers, the reality of entering unchartered territory was an experience like this.
Two teams from different worlds collided, and logic won out. Rubin Kazan live in a grander place, and it showed.
Regret lingered in Rovers minds as they made their way home. What if they hadn't shipped a goal so early? What if they had taken some of their second-half opportunities?
But their manager Michael O'Neill is a realist and lived up to that billing.
"If we're brutally honest," he reflected, "our best chances came when we were three goals down.
"There'll be a sense of deflation, but that will go away. If you look at the fee they paid for Obafemi Martins -- £17m -- we could probably run our club for 10 years off that. That just shows the difference in the financial landscape.
"But in the cold light of day, we'll take the positives from this for the games that lie ahead."
The road to this momentous day had been built on an uphill stretch. Regrettably, this Rovers team have an unfortunate habit of starting poorly at this level. For the fifth European game on the trot, they conceded first.
Just two minutes had elapsed when they shipped a soft goal that stunned the giddy crowd. It was too easy, almost like slow motion.
Turkish international Gokdeniz Karadeniz, who had only arrived on the morning of the game due to visa problems, ghosted away from Pat Sullivan and paved the way for Martins to steer the ball into the bottom corner.
The game plan was tossed out the window, although there were already problems on that front arising from the hectic preparation.
O'Neill had sprung a surprise in his team selection, with Ronan Finn chosen on the right of midfield and Stephen O'Donnell getting the nod ahead of Chris Turner in the three-man engine room.
Yet the Northern Irishman acknowledged that the Rubin set-up was unexpected. The Russians had lined up with three centre-halves in the DVDs that O'Neill had watched. Instead, they went with a back four and two holding midfielders.
"They had played with a different system away from home in Europe previously," he said. "I do feel that not having seen them personally did hinder us somewhat."
O'Neill expressed sympathy for the talented Finn, who endured a tough shift. Ultimately, Rovers lacked pace and energy in wide areas with Rohan Ricketts -- chosen ahead of Billy Dennehy on the left -- also partial towards drifting inside.
Rovers had the bodies to match Rubin numerically in the centre of the park, yet they found it difficult to commit. When O'Donnell did get into the area to meet a Ricketts cross, the presence of Rubin 'keeper Sergei Ryzhikov snuffed out the danger.
In reality, on the balance of play, the Dubliners were relieved to go in trailing by just a goal at the break. They had a combination of heroics from 'keeper Ryan Thompson and wastefulness from Paraguay international Nelson Valdez to thank for that.
Valdez had flashed off target shortly after Martins' opener, and the recent €5m acquisition was afforded a chance to atone when the Nigerian was clumsily hauled to the ground by Craig Sives in the penalty area. Valdez stepped up at the renovated Car Park end and fired at the feet of Thompson, who deserves huge credit for clambering to his feet and getting a hand to the rebound before a posse of maroon shirts could follow up.
The hope for the Tallaght faithful was that their charges would bounce out with renewed purpose. Regrettably, the opposite scenario developed and Rubin doubled their lead almost instantaneously. Skipper Christian Noboa lingered at the edge of the box and produced a stunning strike when a Conor McCormack clearance dropped into his path.
Its impact could have been cancelled out from the restart, with Finn heading straight at Rzyhikov from close range. "That was a key moment," O'Neill said. "Maybe at 2-1, it would have been a different game."
That proved to be Finn's last contribution; a double switched followed which brought Ciaran Kilduff and Dennehy into the fray. McCormack was also withdrawn, with O'Neill admitting afterwards that he might have rushed the Louth man into this game ahead of schedule.
While Kilduff's arrival gave the Dubliners another outlet in forward areas, Rubin clinically responded with a third goal -- the elusive Karadeniz swivelled to smash a right-footed strike that found its target off the underside of the crossbar.
By now the home fans had reassessed their aims. They just wanted to see a Rovers goal and a prime opportunity was created when Gary Twigg slipped away from the giant Cesar Navas, instigating the foul which resulted in another spot kick.
O'Donnell's cool conversion in Belgrade had earned Rovers the ticket to this level but he faced a lengthy wait as both benches brought on fresh legs. Rzyhikov read the Galway man's intentions and stuck out a boot to prevent the consolation.
Rzyhikov was in no mood for generosity and subsequently pushed a clever Dennehy free to safety before a hectic period where both Turner and Stephen Rice lost their composure in a crowded box when better was possible.
"Maybe tonight was a good thing for the players because they will see what is required at this level," said O'Neill. "There's a lot of things in there which are a steep learning curve. Perhaps for the players to fully utilise that, they will have to go on and play at a higher level.
"The only way to deal with the quality we've faced is to encounter it on a regular basis, and we don't get the chance to do that."
Rubin coach Kurban Berdyev was polite about the home side, and suggested they are capable of picking up a win in this group.
"I still feel there's opportunities to take points," O'Neill stressed.
Given the club's recent history, this was no evening for despondency. The romantics might have left disappointed, but the pragmatists will appreciate that the real fairytale was making this day possible.
Shamrock Rovers -- Thompson, Sullivan, Sives, Murray, Stevens; Finn (Kilduff 55), O'Donnell, McCormack (Dennehy 55), Rice, Ricketts (Turner 63); Twigg.
Rubin Kazan -- Ryzhikov; Kaleshin (Ansaldi 73), Sharonov, Cesar Navas, Bocchetti; Noboa, Natcho; Martins (Bystrov 45), Ryazantsev, Karadeniz; Valdez (Dyadyun 63).
REF -- Z Szabo (Hungary).