| 18.2°C Dublin

Saints aim to strike gold

IN another year, the visit of a Bundesliga side to Irish shores would command attention before a ball was kicked, but St Patrick's Athletic will need to produce something special tonight to compete with events in London.

Any amount of Olympic cliches could be applied to the mammoth task that Liam Buckley's side face at Tallaght Stadium (7.45). Call it the fight of their lives, a dive in the deep end. Either way, taking down Hannover 96 will require a gold medal effort.

This is a different level to the two Europa League rounds which the Saints have already successfully negotiated. Hannover bring a squad worth over €20m, with a host of internationals in their ranks. At full strength they have 14 different nationalities in their first-team squad, and the average wage is believed to be €27,000 a week.

Their version of bad news coming into this tie is that a new €2.2m Brazilian capture, Felipe, is unavailable through injury.

By contrast, in a Saints dressing-room where nobody earns close to a €1,000 a week, the hope is that new signing Vinny Faherty, who has returned after emigrating to Australia, will be cleared to play. He arrived on a free transfer, yet the extra set of legs is desperately needed. It's stating the obvious, but these protagonists are poles apart.

Hannover will feel they are capable of winning this competition; they reached the quarter-finals last year where the eventual winners, Athletico Madrid, checked their progress. "We could have beaten them," said their coach, Mirko Slomka.

Still, there is confidence in the home camp that they are capable of defying the odds. Admittedly, it would be greater if this first-leg clash was taking place in their formidable Richmond Park home rather than Tallaght due to UEFA regulations. Shamrock Rovers' abode is less intimidating and, with over 800 Hannover fans making the journey, they won't lack vocal support.

Nevertheless, the League of Ireland side are conscious that they should have a fitness edge given they are mid-campaign whereas the Germans are at the pre-season stage.

"I'm sure they will be diligent and well organised," says Buckley. "We've looked at all the games they've played so far. They won a match 9-0, but they were beaten 2-0 by a second division team and 4-0 by Hertha Berlin.

"The squad they have been using for every game has been different and I'm sure he's trying to get them all fit. He (Slomka) won't be able to train them hard for the week going into the match. So there are a few little issues he has to deal with."

Saints midfielder John Russell certainly believes that the Saints are capable of causing an upset. He scored in last week's tense win over Bosnian side Siroki Brijeg and reckons a repeat of that performance could reap dividends.

More than anyone, Russell knows the value of success. He moved from Sligo Rovers over the winter as he wanted to use the business degree he attained in his native Galway, and now spends his mornings working in the Saints office alongside their commercial director, gaining an appreciation of how the club operates.

"I've had a couple of mates on my case, saying 'Oh, Sligo are top of the league, you had a chance to win the league', but I'm happy with my decision. I think St Pat's are a club on the up," he stresses.

He concedes that winning the league this year must be the priority, particularly as it offers an easier route to the European group stages.

ACHIEVEMENT

"Shamrock Rovers did it last year and it's given belief to other teams, but starting from the Europa League is hard. You've to go through four rounds. Even if we beat Hannover, we'd have another game again where we wouldn't be favourites -- it would probably be a bigger achievement than Shamrock Rovers if we were to do it," adds Russell.

They have to be pragmatic, though. Buckley's men play a decent brand of football but in training, under the stewardship of Trevor Croly, they have worked on how they will cope for the long periods where they won't have the ball. Keeping it alive for the second leg is the primary aim.

Hannover, who sent over six men last week on a preparatory mission and are staying in the Four Seasons, will be aiming for a stress-free stay. "It's been an intense pre-season, so we're excited about playing a real game," said American skipper Steve Cherundolo, who was involved in the last two World Cups. "Our team always rises to the occasion and I expect nothing less of us here."

The Saints will have to rise a couple of levels above their norm to add spice to next week's German jaunt.

Irish Independent