Juve on a 'different planet' -- O'Neill
Hoops boss admits his side 'wouldn't trade this experience for anything' in Modena
AS Shamrock Rovers fans poured into Modena last night, the Juventus roadshow was rolling into town as well.
Parked up near the entrance to the Stadio Alberto Braglia was a trailer with a club shop attached to it, obviously ready to be spruced up for some strong business today. In this part of the world, the Juventus brand travels and sells.
The stadium is normally the home of the city's Serie B outfit but, this week, it's out on loan to Italy's most widely supported club and their Irish visitors, with the inconvenient presence of U2 in Turin adding a subplot to the Hoops' alluring Europa League adventure.
While both teams went through their paces in the match venue, the football roadies were outside busy adorning the surrounds with Juventus material. Backdrops were constructed listing some of the Old Lady's sponsors. Sky, Nike, Sony Ericsson and Fiat to name just four.
No mention of Woodies this week. No local chipper owner doing the translating. Instead, a storied professional who has worked with Capello, Lippi and many of this country's great managers.
Sure, this tie may have lost its competitive edge with the two-goal victory for the Italians in Tallaght last Thursday, but it hasn't removed any of the charm for the sizeable contingent of travelling fans who are keen to mark the collision of two different worlds. The prospect of Shamrock Rovers meeting one of the game's true giants, on Italian soil, is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Certainly, the authorities have found a quaint location for the postcard, boosted by sweltering temperatures which touched 34 degrees on the morning that the Dublin party arrived.
Modena is a sleepy city, lodged in an administrative region of Northern Italy and best known for its traditional production of Ferraris, Lamborghinis and a variety of other high-end sports cars. Food connoisseurs might know it as the home of balsamic vinegar.
Unsurprisingly then, it's a wealthy area, where the locals enjoy a good quality of life without ever seeming to be in too much of a rush. They enjoy long siestas and, until last evening, it seemed that the whole city had gone to sleep for August. It is a time where local businesses close up and head off on holidays. In a cruel twist of fate, that includes the proprietor of Modena's only Irish bar. He could have afforded a longer break if he'd kept the 'open' signs up for another week.
Nevertheless, pockets of Rovers fans arrived here in good spirits yesterday, with close to 1,000 expected to be present by kick-off time this evening with a large chunk arriving from Dublin on a day trip and others making their way via Bologna, Pisa, Milan and even Rome. They weren't going to let this occasion pass them by. Whatever happens, they'll revel in the moment. Yet their representatives are keen to leave with professional pride intact.
"There's no expectation on us," said manager Michael O'Neill. "But we're focusing on this game, to make sure that we do ourselves justice.
"We have to be realistic. It's a different planet. But I think you have to try and get belief in the game and learn the importance of that. We never got that chance at the start last week, conceding an early goal, but when we eventually did we gave them some trouble and looked like scoring. But we're playing against superior opposition. We're not under any illusions about that."
New Juventus boss Luigi Delneri has been unfailingly polite about Rovers and maintained that position in his pre-match musings. He is keen to use this tie to build momentum as he attempts to rebuild this club after an underwhelming period in their history. In many respects, it's bad news for the League of Ireland side, who would be hoping for a touch of complacency.
"We can't relax," stressed Delneri. "We can't relax because it's not acceptable for us. It is an enemy, so we have to abolish that term from our vocabulary.
"We have a lot of respect for the Irish team, because they have proven their worth in the previous match (in Israel, to qualify for this round). We are not taking it for granted. And it's a match that can further us, by infusing our players with that confidence which we need for future matches as well."
Italian international Claudio Marchisio delivered all the familiar platitudes as well, predicting a challenging encounter. "I'm sure they want to prove they can play well against a team like Juventus," he said. "To prove it to themselves, and for their fans."
O'Neill is paid to size these situations up, however, and while it seemed unusual to be sitting in a Juventus press room talking about the League of Ireland title race, he will pick his team with Sunday's showdown with Bohemians in mind. Yet he knows it's a good problem to have, for the crowded schedule is indicative of how far Rovers have come. There's a bigger picture.
"We're more than happy to deal with this," said O'Neill. "And I don't think it's something that anyone would trade for an easier life in terms of our league campaign. The reality is that we wouldn't trade this experience for anything."