Monday 18 December 2017

Irish clubs falling back to square one in Europe

Ireland's Europa League hopefuls have failed to build on the success of last season, writes Seán Ryan

Seán Ryan

FOLLOWING the international team's disappointing displays in the European Championship finals, the spotlight last week turned to the League of Ireland to restore some pride to the Irish soccer scene.

Sadly, St Patrick's Athletic and Bohemians did little to instil confidence with unconvincing Europa League first leg performances at home against lowly Icelandic opposition.

Ever since summer soccer was introduced in 2002, results in Europe have improved, reaching a new high last year when Shamrock Rovers prolonged their European campaign until December after making the breakthrough to the group stage of the Europa League.

In addition to the Hoops' success last year, St Pat's advanced through two rounds before losing to Karpaty Lviv. So, in every respect, 2011 was the high point of achievement for League of Ireland clubs in Europe.

Last Thursday's results don't indicate that our clubs will be building on last year's success; rather they suggest that, like the international team, it might be a case of back to square one.

There was a direct comparison in the case of St Pat's, who faced IBV from Iceland for the second year running. It took a 2-0 home win for Pat's to advance last year, but all they could manage last Thursday was 1-0.

Bohemians were also facing Icelandic opposition -- Thor Akureyri, a second division team that qualified as beaten cup finalists to double winners KR Reykjavik. A 0-0 draw was not what the home faithful expected from a team which had hammered league champions Shamrock Rovers 4-0 the previous Friday at the same venue.

Bohemians manager Aaron Callaghan didn't pull his punches afterwards. "They think they've won it," he said of Thor, "and they are now justifiably favourites."

He also admitted that his team's failure to play at a higher tempo in the first half -- "some of the time it was near walking pace," he asserted -- allowed Thor to settle. Attempts to lift the tempo in the second half improved matters for the home team, but failed to yield a goal.

Again Callaghan was brutally honest: "We only had a few half-chances, so we probably didn't deserve to score."

The consolation for him was that his team didn't concede a goal and that factor, as much as anything, offers some hope to both Bohs and Pat's on their travels this week. European ties are famously won away -- a good result away from home generally sets a team up to go through. For that reason, the two Icelandic teams are probably thinking they have one foot in the next round.

However, failure to score away leaves teams vulnerable to concessions at home, and leads to more caution than might be displayed otherwise. In those circumstances, Bohs and Pat's can travel in hope.

Success for either of the Dublin sides could be short-lived for the second-round draw would have Bohs playing FK Mladá Boleslav from the Czech Republic, and Pat's facing Bosnia and Herzegovina outfit NK Siroki Brijeg.

In effect, their European campaigns could be over before the end of July, and the same could apply to Sligo Rovers, who are drawn with Slovakian side FC Spartak Trnava. Sligo, with a rare chance to capture a league title, could be forgiven if European glory is down the list of their priorities.

The biggest blow to the league, though, could be the elimination of champions Shamrock Rovers by Lithuania's FK Ekranas. After their exploits last year, that is not what the fans might be expecting, but current form offers little reassurance.

With the return of Pat Sullivan from his Australian odyssey, the Hoops have eight of last season's Euro heroes to call on, but heavy defeats by St Pat's, Sligo and Bohs don't inspire confidence.

The two league games down for decision today -- Shamrock Rovers v St Patrick's Athletic at Tallaght Stadium (3.0) and Cork City v Bohemians at Turner's Cross (6.0) -- will be keenly contested, but their European ventures might rob Pat's and Bohs of key players and the necessary focus. Expect Shamrock Rovers and Cork City to take advantage, but whether it will represent a turning of the corner for the Hoops remains to be seen.

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