Dundalk and Sligo to face World Cup stars on Europa stage
After spending a fortnight bullying clubs on the lowest rung of European football's ladder, Sligo Rovers, Derry City and Dundalk make the move from expectant victors to massive underdogs tonight.
Clearing their first Europa League hurdles proved easy, with Derry recording a 9-0 aggregate win over Welsh side Aberystwyth Town, Dundalk beating the Luxembourgers Jeunesse Esch 5-1 and Sligo dispensing of Lithuania's FK Banga 4-0.
Yet while enjoying the easy pickings against three uninspiring opponents was all well and good, in terms of registering on the sporting Richter scale, the victories barely caused a murmur.
Tonight is different, though, because it sees two names with a storied European history come face to face with Ireland's representatives, Sligo meeting Rosenborg in Norway and Dundalk hosting the Croats Hajduk Split at Oriel Park.
On the face of things, you wouldn't give either Irish team a chance. The respective balance sheets and stronger squads of Rosenborg and Hajduk suggest the tie is over before it even begins. Yet football is never so simple.
Ask Cristian Gamboa about upsetting the odds. The Costa Rican returned to Trondheim from Brazil last week where he played in all five of his country's games, from the 3-1 victory over Uruguay through to a scoreless draw and subsequent shoot-out defeat to Holland.
Given all that happened in the tournament since, it's hard to imagine that Dutch game took place just 12 days ago and harder again to get your head around the fact that Gamboa's first game back should be against Sligo Rovers.
"He is a professional," said manager Per Joar Hansen, "and this is what he is paid to do."
Hansen, meanwhile, is paid generously to try and restore Rosenborg's fortunes which dipped alarmingly after their glory years ended in 2007, the 11th year out of 13 they made it to the Champions League group stages.
Four years have now passed since they won their last Norwegian title and their European results have also been in decline to the point that St Johnstone managed to knock them out of the Europa League last season.
Expecting Sligo to emulate the Scottish side's achievement is a bit much, though. Notwithstanding the fact that injuries have plagued John Coleman's team throughout the year is the presence of not just one World Cup squad member, but two, in Hansen's side.
American international Mikkel Diskerud may not have made an appearance in Brazil but his pedigree was rewarded with a place in the Jurgen Klinsmann's squad, while the familiar face of Morten Gamst Pedersen, the former Blackburn winger, is a reminder of the deeper pockets at Hansen's disposal.
The same is true of Hajduk Split, who also have two World Cup players, the Bosnian pair Avdija Vrsajevic and Tino-Sven Susic, in their travelling party for tonight's game as well as an even richer European pedigree than Rosenborg, having reached the quarter-finals of the European Cup three times and the semi-finals of both the UEFA Cup and Cup Winners Cup.
"They're a good side and have a good record in Europe," said Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny. "We know they will be better than what we usually face."
And sometimes shock results happen. The only previous time Hajduk travelled to Dundalk, way back in 1977, they lost and 10 years ago they were knocked out of the Champions League by Shelbourne.
Derry, meanwhile, face what appears to be a more winnable tie against the Belarussian team Shakhtyor Soligorsk, but with Dean Jarvis picking up an injury, they are short of defensive options.
With that in mind, manager Peter Hutton approached former player Sean Houston and got him on board for tonight's game as Derry hope for glory.
"It's going to be a formidable task for us but the way the players are playing at the minute they can go and express themselves," said Hutton. "We will see how far we can go."