Kenny demands 'ruthless' edge as Hoops hit Euro trail
SHAMROCK ROVERS are back at the European starting line, and the big question that hovers over them is: how do you follow last year's exploits?
Stephen Kenny tends to sidestep any questions about his predecessor's achievements, but after replacing Michael O'Neill in December, living up to the 2011 season was always going to be the new man's toughest task.
The fans may not have been overly enamoured with the way O'Neill's team played, but they grew used to two things under the Northern Ireland manager's rein -- winning and big European nights.
The former hasn't come easy since O'Neill left and a few of the latter could ease the tremendous pressure Kenny is under after a series of underwhelming domestic results.
Getting through the second round of the Champions League against Lithuanian side FK Ekranas is a means to an end. Winning would secure at least four more games and an opportunity to keep last year's momentum going.
Defeat at this stage, however, would mean further disappointment for an already under-pressure boss and deny the club the kind of revenue they received from last year's run.
So, how do Kenny and his team put their domestic form to one side and capitalise on this opportunity, starting tonight in the first leg at the Tallaght Stadium?
CUT OUT MISTAKES
Few who watched Rovers in action under O'Neill could have imagined that their defence could be so leaky after he was gone.
Their once stingy back-four have been wide open this season, largely thanks to a series of basic errors and lapses of concentration that have been punished by teams like UCD, Bohemians and Dundalk.
Having conceded 25 goals in 16 games in the league, Kenny admits that things have to be tighter at the back against an experienced Ekranas outfit, who were seeded higher than Rovers, and are full of internationals that will take any gifts that come their way.
"Absolutely, we have got to become more ruthless defensively. We have conceded crazy goals in the league," he said. "We know we have made mistakes. We have conceded four injury-time goals at home which resulted in dropping eight points and that is why we are where we are. We have been punished harshly for those mistakes."
When Irish teams go into European competition, the focus is often on how they will compete in the possession stakes, but Kenny stressed that his team would need to be aggressive to beat Ekranas.
A lot will depend on his team selection and whether he includes the likes of Chris Turner and Conor McCormack in midfield to add some bite. Last week against Dundalk, Stephen Rice, Ronan Finn and Killian Brennan were outmuscled at times, and that trio may need shaking up for the step up in class.
No Irish squad has ever gone into action with more European experience than this one.
And while Kenny has made changes to the squad, 13 of last year's panel remain; of the new recruits likely to feature, only goalkeeper Oscar Jansson has not tasted this level of competition before.
Daryl Kavanagh excelled for St Patrick's Athletic in their European run last season, while Brennan and Conor Powell have plenty of European experience -- although not all of it good -- from their days at Bohemians.
Kenny himself will be taking charge of his 17th European game, so everyone at Tallaght knows what to expect.
GET TWIGG SCORING
Since agreeing to follow O'Neill across the Irish Sea from Brechin City, Twigg has been a phenomenon at Rovers and has earned hero status from their fans.
But he has been unable to replicate his sensational domestic scoring rate when the Hoops have ventured into Europe, playing 15 times (three as a substitute) and failing to hit the net.
There are extenuating circumstances: he was often left alone to work selflessly up front as the Irish side battled to contain opposition like Spurs, Rubin Kazan and PAOK, but Kenny wants him to get the monkey off his back tonight.
"I'm backing him to come good," the manager said yesterday. "There has been a lot of talk about him not scoring in Europe, but he is well capable of doing it."
TAKING A LEAD TO LITHUANIA
Captain Ken Oman said winning tonight was "imperative" and the squad know how important their 1-0 win over Flora Tallinn proved last season.
"This is a huge game," the skipper said. "Getting through guarantees another four games, but Ekranas are a good side, we are just looking at this game. We are going to attack as well. They look like a good side, but we can get at them as well."
Having lost three of their most experienced internationals in recent weeks, FK Ekranas are a less formidable threat than they were when pulled out of the hat to face Rovers.
The kingpins of Lithuanian football, having won the last four titles and the double in 2010 and 2011, their recent domination could be coming to an end -- they have been forced to offload their former Hearts and Rangers striker Andrius Velicka and fellow internationals Mantas Savenas and Ramunas Radavicius due to financial constraints.
Their newly trimmed-down squad still includes Lithuanian internationals Ignas Dedura, Vitalijus Kavaliauskas and Vytautas Luksa, while Yani Urdinov has been capped twice by Macedonia.
Manager Valdas Urbonas is himself a former international and has overseen three of their league titles since taking over in 2008.
His side lead the way at the top of the A Lyga standings, six points clear of their nearest rivals Zalgiris Vilnius.
While Ekranas have dominated the domestic scene, their European record is far from outstanding and there is little for Shamrock Rovers to fear on paper.
Tonight is Ekranas' 10th European campaign in succession and their fourth Champions League attempt in a row. They failed at this stage three times before finally making it through last year, beating Maltese side Valletta before coming up short against Belarus' BATE Borisov 3-1 on aggregate.
Entering the Europa League at the same stage as Shamrock Rovers did, they lost 5-0 on aggregate to Hapoel Tel Aviv.
While Rovers have been reliant on Twigg for goals this season, Ekranas' goals have been spread around, with Ivory Coast striker Adama Fofana expected to lead the line.
Rovers must plan without Ciaran Kilduff and Aaron Greene, while Oman is a doubt after picking up a dead leg against Dundalk last Friday.