Monday 18 December 2017

O'Neill upbeat as Hoops dare to dream


Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

GAME on, after a start in Copenhagen which prompted early fears of game over.

Shamrock Rovers left Denmark last night daring to dream.

They are well in this Champions League tie after a mature response to a fourth-minute concession, although they will need to find another gear in Tallaght next Tuesday if they are to turn around this scoreline and move one step closer to the promised land.

If they can somehow achieve that, the Dubliners will be 180 minutes away from the Champions League proper and guaranteed a place in the Europa League group stages if they fall at the final hurdle.

Heady stuff, but Michael O'Neill was keen to remain calm afterwards.


"I would say, if I'm honest, that the tie is 60-40 in Copenhagen's favour," said O'Neill afterwards. "And there is a slight disappointment to lose here, to be honest. We had chances.

"But it's certainly in the balance. No doubt about that. The pressure will be on Copenhagen next week. There was a lot of encouraging signs there."

The mood at the death was a welcome contrast from the opening minutes on a balmy night at the Parken Stadium.

For all that the technical deficiencies of League of Ireland players are generally exposed against teams of these calibre, it is remarkable how often they ship goals in situations they would encounter week to week on home turf.

The deadlock breaker provided a perfect, painful example for the Hoops. A corner was routinely cleared back to the taker, left-full Pierre Bengtsson, who swung the ball back into the area, where the visitors had switched off. Icelandic international centre-half Solvi Ottesen met it with a header that gave Ryan Thompson no chance.

So much for keeping it tight early. To their credit, Rovers responded well, with Copenhagen losing some of their early urgency once armed with the lead. As expected, O'Neill had introduced Stephen Rice for the absent Chris Turner in the three-man central midfield, with Rice and McCormack doing the harassing, while Ronan Finn endeavoured to make runs into space.

That was a commodity in relatively short supply, though, with Rovers more concerned with checking Copenhagen's movement. Nevertheless, with their main striker Dame N'Doye unavailable, fellow Senegalese star Pape Pate Diouf was moved from his preferred left-wing berth into a central role.

N'Doye normally operates as a target man and, in his absence, Copenhagen appeared to lack a real focal point, with long periods of possession coming to nothing.

O'Neill had encouraged his players to get crosses into the box whenever possible, rightly surmising that a newly assembled Copenhagen rearguard were suspect under pressure, and Rovers could arguably have done better with an opening arising from the first serious advance. When the Hoops committed, Copenhagen broke purposefully, with the overlapping Bengtsson teeing up the erratic Diouf from a situation where the hosts flicked on an invisible switch and lifted the pace of the game by a couple of levels.

That danger was always there, yet Rovers could easily have levelled before the half-hour mark, when lone striker Gary Twigg -- who was otherwise getting little change from the opposing centre-halves -- got a subtle flick on a Pat Sullivan cross which confused Ottesen. Billy Dennehy burst in on the blind side to stab a close-range attempt straight at the feet of Johan Wiland.

Strong pressing from Rice was central to the build-up, with Copenhagen temporarily knocked out of their stride.

Nevertheless, Rovers needed to call on Thompson to keep the half-time deficit at one, with Alan Mannus' replacement at full stretch to palm away a Diouf header after Irish sounding Danish U-21 international Thomas Delaney had delivered.

Roland Nilsson withdrew unconvincing right-back Johnny Thomsen at the interval, with Dennehy causing some difficulty and replacement Ragnar Sigurdsson was also given a good workout, with the black-shirted Rovers keen to get the ex-Sunderland and Cork man on the ball at every opportunity.

They dug in well following the resumption and came inches from an equaliser when a Dennehy corner was steered narrowly off target by Ken Oman.

The Airtricity League champions were beginning to display increased confidence in the opposing half and Thompson was untroubled for 20 minutes until Norwegian international Christian Grindheim forced the 26-year-old into a fingertip save.

Still, the Rovers response was to go in search of a goal, with a Dennehy centre laid off by Twigg when he might have shot, and Finn eventually picking up the pieces and fizzing a left-footer just wide.

As the minutes ticked by, the scoreline grew in attractiveness. The outstanding Oman made two brave interventions to keep it that way, with the second coming at a price. Suspected medial ligament damage places his second-leg participation in doubt.

Dan Murray was sent into the fray to see out the remainder and, with Copenhagen's reserve of ideas running low, he demonstrated his experience in a concluding 10 minutes that was surprisingly low on tension.

"We felt they looked leggy in the last 20 minutes against Odense on Saturday, and we thought we might get chances," explained O'Neill. "But we probably had our best chances earlier."

The noisy band of travelling fans hailed the final whistle and will have sleepless nights mulling over the prospect of next Tuesday's decider in Tallaght.

FC Copenhagen -- Wiland; Thomsen (Sigurdsson 45), Ottesen, Jorgensen, Bengtsson; Bolanos, Claudemir, Grindheim, Delaney (Absalonsen 62); Diouf, Santin (Nordstrand 70).

Shamrock Rovers -- Thompson, Sullivan, Sives, Oman (Murray 83), Stevens; Kelly (McCabe 53), Rice (Kilduff 89), Finn, McCormack, Dennehy; Twigg.

Ref -- P Radovanovic (Montenegro).

Irish Independent

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