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Talk of crisis sends O'Neill on offensive

IF the deeds of Shamrock Rovers' players over the next week mirror their manager's defiant demeanour yesterday, they could be in for a lucrative European run.

Michael O'Neill and his club have endured a turbulent month, but the Hoops boss was in fighting form as he addressed what he perceives as forces outside the club conspiring against them ahead of the club's return to Europe's premier club competition after a 24-year absence.

Estonian champions Flora Tallinn may not be in the same ball park as Juventus or Real Madrid when it comes to the recent big-name visitors to southwest Dublin, but in many ways this is the most important match the venue has staged since it was opened.

Victory over the two legs would guarantee a minimum of two more European ties and an extra €220,000 in prize money.

The Hoops aren't financially reliant on the income, unlike some of their League of Ireland predecessors in the competition in recent years, but the benefits of overcoming the Estonians are clear.

The reality for O'Neill is that he is currently in the biggest job in Irish domestic football and, as a result, is under scrutiny like never before and nothing focuses the eye more than European football.

The combination of the team's recent dip in form, the dispute arising from Chris Turner's comments to Derry City's Eamon Zayed, assistant manager Trevor Croly's surprise departure and the manager's contractual decision remaining up in the air has left question marks hanging over the champions.

Success in Europe would do a lot for the former Northern Ireland midfielder's position and he is in no mood to contemplate crisis talk.

"A lot of the stuff written has not come from within the club and is not designed to be helpful in any way," O'Neill said.

"We have lost two league games -- away to Sligo and Derry. We are one point off the top of the table despite the 'crisis' we are in, we are Setanta Sports Cup winners and the defending league champions.

"The ship was never unsteady. People come and go in football. If it was unsettled, then it was only unsettled for a short time. We are not coming into this game low on confidence. We have led the league for most of the season and we are now sitting one point off so it's far from a situation that it is spiralling out of control."

The four-day turnaround from Friday's defeat at the Brandywell means O'Neill has had limited time to focus on tonight's opponents, who are unbeaten in their league so far this season and are clear on top with a game in hand.

Rovers employed former player Shane Robinson -- now with Finnish club FC Haka -- to scout Flora, who have been out of league action for almost two weeks but played friendlies against Belgian side Genk and Poland's Wisla Krakow to prepare for the physical challenge of facing the Irish champions.

Flora boss Martin Reim seemed similarly in the dark about his opponents' qualities yesterday, so fans can expect a lengthy period of the sides feeling each other out in the opening stages.

"Nobody plays gung-ho in Europe and the opposition is relatively unknown so that would be irresponsible. We will seek to win the game but the result is over two legs," O'Neill said.

Other than ankle victim Karl Sheppard, the Hoops have a clean bill of health, while Flora are also at full strength. Tonight's objective is all about ensuring they can go to Tallinn next week still in the tie, so a cagey opener is to be expected.

Despite their rich history, the Hoops have never won a European Cup game. Tonight would be a good place to start.

Verdict: Draw

Irish Independent