Tuesday 23 January 2018

McCabe keeps Euro flame alive for Rovers


Shamrock Rovers' Gary McCabe celebrates after scoring against Partizan Belgrade in the Europa League play-off first leg in Tallaght last night
Shamrock Rovers' Gary McCabe celebrates after scoring against Partizan Belgrade in the Europa League play-off first leg in Tallaght last night

A rare old turnaround in Tallaght to keep the dream alive. Shamrock Rovers needed the half- time whistle, but produced a courageous second-half display to leave Partizan Belgrade gasping for the final blow.

They face a mountainous task in Serbia next Thursday, yet they can at least travel with hope of qualifying for the Europa League group stages. For a worrying period last night, there was a shortage of that commodity.

Michael O'Neill's men could have been dead and buried at the break, if a Partizan side that started with eight internationals had taken their chances.

But the League of Ireland champions capitalised on that fortune by regrouping, throwing caution to the wind with some ambitious substitutions, and unlocking the Serbians thanks to a magical moment from the inspired Gary McCabe -- a Tallaght native who lived a dream just down the road from where he grew up. That's what special European nights are made of for Irish clubs.

"There'll be high expectations on them over there," said O'Neill, "So, hopefully we can make life difficult for them. We won in Israel last year after 1-1 draw at home, but this will be a stiffer task."

The irony is that the mood at the death was a contrast from the hours before this game, with the atmosphere subdued compared to the vibes before the Champions League tie with Copenhagen two weeks ago.

Partizan really choked the life out of the occasion with a purposeful opening that left the natives with a sense of foreboding. Their coach Aleksandar Stanojevic had promised in the preliminaries that he would go with two strikers, and he kept his word.

Rather than sitting back to size up their opponents in the opening exchanges, the Serbians came with an approach which suggested a determination to wrap it up. From the outset, they pressed high up the field, not giving the Rovers defence an inch of space.

Goalkeeper Ryan Thompson was under pressure with the ball at his feet, with nervous moments aplenty as the Dubliners failed to display any technical confidence. Partizan were energised by the uncertainty, and deserved their 13th-minute lead. Right-winger Nemanja Tomic, a Serbian international, had already tested Thompson with a 35-yard free before he got on the end of a Vladimir Jovancic drag-back to drill past the Jamaican.

O'Neill will be disappointed that the Serbians had little problem finding space behind left-full Enda Stevens.

The Tallaght masses hoped the setback would spur their boys into life. Instead, they spent the following period clinging on for dear life. Tomic could have added another following another slick Partizan overlap, and then the wasteful Eduardo scuffed off target when a terrible misjudgement from Dan Murray presented the South American with a one-on-one situation.

Somehow, the League of Ireland champions kept the deficit at a minimum and belatedly grew into the game with a couple of stern tackles from Stephen Rice raising the volume. They even began to win set-pieces and deliver balls into the area. Murray, who was facing a stern examination defensively, twice found room in the Partizan box, but the execution was lacking.

Half-time provided respite and there was no surprise when Ronan Finn failed to re-emerge for the second half. The talented midfielder had carried an injury into the tie and looked a shadow of his usual self. Chris Turner was summoned.

Meanwhile, Billy Dennehy and McCabe temporarily switched flanks in an attempt to provide support to the isolated Gary Twigg. He would eventually receive some support on the hour mark, when O'Neill sent in Gary O'Neill as a second striker.

The change was almost made redundant as the sub was warming up, when Thompson directed a clearance straight at Jovancic who had ample time to pick his spot. But the Rovers keeper spread himself well to atone for the error.

From that let-off, Rovers found inspiration. The injection of fresh legs and the tactical reshuffle energised their legs. Partizan fell deeper, with Stanojevic forced into a substitution to counter the Rovers resurgence.

Half chances for right-full Pat Sullivan and Turner followed and there were shouts for a penalty when a wild attempt at a clearance from Jovancic came off the arm of Nemanja Rnic, but the centre-half knew nothing about it and the Estonian referee waved away appeals. A Serbian opponent told McCabe it should have been awarded.


But there was more to come, and the Rovers bench must take the credit. They abandoned all thoughts of conservatism and preserving a scoreline. Instead, they went for it, bringing on a third attacker -- Ciaran Kilduff -- for Rice.

Again, Partizan were caught cold. McCabe continued to roam, and got his reward with a goal he will never forget with eight minutes left. With deft feet, he nipped away from midfield attention, instigated a quick one-two with Twigg, outfoxed Bulgarian international Ivan Ivanov and stabbed under the body of ex-Wigan stopper Vladimir Stojkovic to prompt uproarious celebrations.

"We knew Gary could hurt them in that area," said O'Neill.

Incredibly, it could have got better for the Hoops as Twigg skied over with a hint of offside when another searching cross pinballed around the area.

In the end, Partizan were reduced to time wasting tactics to see out the draw. Stanojevic was stunned. "We should have finished the game in the first half," he said. "Next week, we will have to score more than one goal in the first half to kill off the match. We can control it, for sure."

He may be sure about their chances in Belgrade, but the favourites to advance will know they cannot afford to be complacent.

Shamrock Rovers -- Thompson, Sullivan, Sives, Murray, Stevens; McCormack, Rice (Kilduff 76), Finn (Turner 45); McCabe, Dennehy (O'Neill 59); Twigg.

Partizan Belgrade -- Stojkovic, Rankovic, Rnic, Ivanov, Stankovic; Tomic, Medo, Smiljanic, Ilic (L Markovic 85); Eduardo (Babovic 65), Jovancic (S Markovic 90).

REF -- H Kaasik (Estonia).

Irish Independent

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