The action in this game was always going to struggle to match the entertainment of the preliminaries but, while Shkupi made waves with a statement off the park, Shamrock Rovers made a big one on it to put group stage football within touching distance.
ary O’Neill’s 96th minute strike, the last kick of the game, gives the Hoops a two goal lead they can bring to Skopje for Tuesday’s decider. It restored the advantage they held at half-time and there was enough in a strong second half rally from Shkupi to believe there’s life in this tie yet.
But the mood music was changed by a rare goal from the Kerryman to break the hearts of a Shkupi side reduced to ten just minutes earlier for a foul on O’Neill. He dusted himself down to be on hand to curl a right footer into the top corner as Shkupi tried to push out from defending a corner.
For the champions of North Macedonia, the outcome was even more miserable than their trip here, although it could have been much worse given that they were struggling to find a route into the country on the eve of the game.
Assistance from Minister for Sport Jack Chambers and FAI President Gerry McAnaney was required to secure a slot for their charter in Shannon Airport, with Rovers well versed on the difficulties presented by the Irish aviation situation this term having flown out of Clare for their return meeting with Hibernians of Malta.
This roundabout trip to Ireland’s capital for a Europa League tie worth a guaranteed reward of €3.3m (via a Conference League group stage spot) to the winners did not please the Shkupi hierarchy who had stayed at home and an extraordinary post on their social media channels suggested that the Irish government were engaged in ‘cheap games’ amongst other things."
The fact that Ludogorets were able to get in and out of Dublin was referenced, and Rovers would probably share their sentiment on that given as they unable to be accommodated in their city’s airport for the away leg in Bulgaria, a factor that contributed to a nightmare journey and costly defeat.
Such details didn’t feature in the aggressive Shkupi announcement in which it was stressed they were determined to ‘respond as a team’ to the ‘evil’ done to them. “Today, our team will show you a character,” it read, “Like lions on the field.”
Rovers officials expecting an irate response from the visiting delegation at the stadium weren’t quite met with that. The fact that the club’s Turkish owner Olgun Peker, a colourful character, did not make the journey may have contributed to that. The statement was not put together in Ireland.
Alas, for Shkupi, the opening to this game was more about (Andy) Lyons than lions and it leaves them staring elimination from the Europa League. The away side were ill disciplined from the outset, all aggression and no composure and a casual challenge from Albert Lamane to fell the Rovers wing back resulted in a spot kick. Graham Burke finished calmly.
Shkupi’s attackers pressed high, yet once Rovers kept their cool and played through that line, space opened up. Rory Gaffney had already wasted a chance before he created the second, collecting a pass from Burke before teeing up Dylan Watts who showed brilliant composure to allow the ball cross his body before converting.
Rovers were in control, with Shkupi’s sideline in a flap. From the restart, they did up their levels with home netminder Alan Mannus producing a pair of top drawer stops to keep the margin at two. The loss of Chris McCann to injury robbed Rovers of important protection in the engine room and Bradley had to problem solve on the sideline. Mannus was called into action again to keep out Shkupi sub Adem Ali, a key moment that was more about the miss than the save.
Shkupi had served a warning, and Queven, a Brazilian playmaker earlier denied from distance, found the net with a thunderbolt from distance which changed direction in the air. The exuberant Tallaght crowd of 6,455 was suddenly nervous, especially when Mannus palmed away an Ali shot at the near post.
The Hoops needed to put a foot on things, and they were helped by a rash challenge from Walid Hamidi on O’Neill which took the life out of their rally. Instead, the focus shifted to digging in and hanging on to a 2-1 scoreline but their timewasting attempts put six additional minutes onto the 90, with O’Neill waiting until the end to make every second count.
Shamrock Rovers: Mannus, Gannon, Hoare, Grace; Finn (Farrugia 72), O’Neill, McCann (Towell 61), Lyons; Burke (Greene 54), Watts (Kavanagh 72); Gaffney (Emakhu 72)
Shkupi: Naumovski, Timovski, Faustin, Margvelashvili, Demiri (Brdarovski 45); Alvarez (Ali 64), Queven (Dzelil 90), Lamane; Hamidi, Adetunji (Georgiev 64), Cephas (Trapanovski 64)
Referee: Bartosz Frankowski (Poland)