O'Neill hoping for point from Hoops' snow patrol
WITH a snow plough busy clearing the pitch and an army of workers hammering away in the stands with ice picks, Shamrock Rovers arrived at the Centralniy Stadium last night to experience a proper Russian winter.
It's a sharp contrast from their first European trip this year in July, a foray to Estonia that is a world away from this challenge. Back then, Tallinn was basked in sunshine and the opponents, FC Flora, provided a kind sort of test.
This is a different prospect in every sense. Firstly, the weather conditions are extreme, with heavy snowfall in recent weeks covering this city, and sub-zero temperatures freezing the Volga River that runs through the centre of the capital of Tatarstan.
Indeed, the locals were concerned this game might not go ahead when a storm engulfed their airport on Monday, grounding planes for a period of time. Kazan have been forced to move fixtures to Moscow in the past, and had tentatively examined their options.
However, their cause was aided by milder temperatures compared to the norm at this time of year; it was only minus two degrees for most of yesterday, a contrast from minus 15 last week.
So, the match will certainly go ahead, and that's just as well, considering Rovers paid €80,000 to charter a plane for the five-hour journey to west-central Russia.
It's still going to be chilly though, and the visiting players will examine what protective clothing they can wear within UEFA regulations. Boss Michael O'Neill shall also contemplate a shorter than usual warm-up, although, again, there are guidelines in this regard.
The Northern Irishman acknowledged that the real intimidation factor is provided by a crack Rubin Kazan outfit with international talent in every department -- and that's despite the fact they are affected by suspensions. Kurban Berdyev's charges were much the better side in Dublin in September and, unlike Rovers, they have recent competitive match practice.
Only now are the multi-million euro outfit entering a winter break, and they rounded off their domestic duties with impressive wins over CSKA Moscow and Dinamo Moscow.
So, in the circumstances, this could hardly be described as an obvious opportunity for the Hoops to pick up their first point in European group stage competition. In reality, it's probably the trickiest test of the lot.
"To play over here is as tough an away game as Shamrock Rovers will ever face," said captain Dan Murray. "And it's been a lot harder than we thought to get results. We've done really well in some parts of games but, in other parts, we've done really badly.
"It would be great to get a point, but, as the manager has said, we're playing the two toughest teams to finish off."
O'Neill was keen to talk only about the challenge ahead. His own future remains unresolved and he has declared an interest in the Northern Ireland manager's job. It's unclear if that position will be filled before the concluding fixture with Spurs on December 15.
"I don't think it's something to discuss at the minute," he said. "We've a game tomorrow night, so there's no point going into that situation at the moment."
What is certain is that Rovers will approach this game with the philosophy that has typified their European exploits. O'Neill juggled with three at the back in last week's friendly with Malmo that was organised to keep his players ticking over, but he felt it didn't quite work out.
So, the 4-5-1 should be deployed, with a question mark over the identity of the lone front man. Gary Twigg is on the comeback trail from injury -- he was asked about by a Russian reporter who wondered where the Scot had been -- and will be in the match-day squad. But Karl Sheppard may yet lead the line from the outset.
Whatever the personnel, O'Neill is under no illusions about the scale of the challenge. "It's extremely difficult," he said. "There's many factors that will make it difficult.
"Not only the travel and the adjustment to the four-hour time difference, but the climate and the quality of Kazan.
"Still, I don't think there will be too big a deviation from how we've played previously. It would be foolhardy to change what has made us competitive."
His opposite number, Berdyev, was suitably respectful towards the Irish visitors in the face of local questioning which suggested this game was a formality. "We did notice they scored first in London and equalised in Greece, so we are ready for a difficult match," he said. "We don't expect this match to be easy."
Nevertheless, midfielder Petr Nemov articulated a prevailing mood as he assessed the task at hand.
"We hope there won't be any snowstorms," said the 28-year-old. "But on the whole, we are very positive."
Rovers can't do anything about the elements. The hope is that O'Neill can find the right formula to frustrate the danger they can attempt to control.
Rubin Kazan v Shamrock Rovers,
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