No romance for Rovers as Danes spoil fairytale
Shamrock Rovers 0
FC Copenhagen 2
(Copenhagen win 3-0 on aggregate)
NO romance in Tallaght. Instead, logic prevailed, but only after a pulsating half an hour when it seemed that anything was possible.
Sadly, a Shamrock Rovers side that was punching above its weight was floored by a knockout blow, the goal from Copenhagen that made a stiff task nigh on impossible.
The good news for the Dubliners is that it's not a case of better luck next year. Rather, it's a case of better luck on Friday, when attentions switch from the Champions League to the draw for the final Europa League qualifying hurdle.
The Hoops hierarchy will be praying for a more favourable opponents than a Copenhagen side who will progress with ambitions of making the group stages proper and perhaps even the lofty heights of the last 16 for a second successive campaign.
After a nervous 120 minutes, Roland Nilsson's side regrouped to finish this tie with an hour where they lived up to their billing. The availability of Senegalese international Dame N'Doye was the catalyst for this improvement.
News that Odense, their domestic inferiors, had scored four goals in Greece last night to eliminate Panathinaikos offered a reminder, if it was necessary, that Danish football operates at a completely different level.
"You do feel a sense of lost opportunity," said Shamrock Rovers manager Michael O'Neill.
"But the lesson is that when you are playing against this calibre of player, there is no respite mentally. You have to be at your absolute best for 90 minutes.
In the preliminaries, O'Neill said the immediate priority for the Hoops was to make a disciplined start and avoid the concentration lapses which resulted in the early concessions in Copenhagen last week and against Juventus here last year.
His team, with three changes from last week, responded. Dan Murray replaced the injured Ken Oman, Gary McCabe was selected ahead of Dean Kelly and Chris Turner came back from suspension to step in for Stephen Rice.
Turner's ability to make forward runs to support lone striker Gary Twigg was central to that decision. O'Neill felt the Scotsman was too isolated at times at Parken Stadium and Turner's strength in that department was apparent in a lively opening, in which Nilsson's men toiled.
The Danes were unable to get into a rhythm as the League of Ireland champions harangued, harassed, and seized the initiative. In a period of dominance, Enda Stevens advanced and delivered a teasing cross which the inrushing Turner met with a header that crashed back off the crossbar. The 6,000 sell-out crowd heaved in frustration. Sometimes, in games of this nature, you only get one chance.
Copenhagen managed to regain a degree of composure. They had a different dimension up front with top scorer N'Doye a physically imposing threat. Long periods of home possession in Denmark came to nothing, but N'Doye offered a real outlet. He probed at the midway point of the half, dropping deep to collect a quick free and releasing a strike that Ryan Thompson tipped to safety.
Still, Rovers were competing well, with Conor McCormack impressing in the holding role, and Ronan Finn -- better known for his prowess on the ball -- working extremely hard out of possession.
Gradually, though, Copenhagen began to press with intent, and forced a series of free-kicks and corners in a crucial spell before the interval. Rovers weathered the immediate storm but, four minutes shy of the break, the dreaded away goal was conceded.
A corner was the source, with an inswinging Christian Bolanos delivery nicking off the head of Pat Sullivan, a deflection which wrong-footed the Rovers' defence and left the unsure Thompson exposed. N'Doye showed predatory instinct to dispatch the loose ball. Deflation.
"It knocked the stuffing out of us," admitted O'Neill. "It's disappointing to concede to another set-piece. We had a chance with Turner, but this tie hinged on key moments."
Now, Rovers had nothing to protect. Needing three goals, they sprung out brightly after the resumption with both Billy Dennehy and Twigg taking aim unsuccessfully. Copenhagen were content to soak up some of the pressure.
Certainly, O'Neill had exposed a weakness at the right side of the visiting defence and the Irishmen sought to involve Dennehy at every opportunity, believing he had the measure of Ragnar Sigurdsson. Sometimes, their willingness to go down that route was too predictable.
McCabe had started well on the other flank, but the introduction of Kelly 20 minutes into the second half was necessary to offer an alternative.
However, while Copenhagen maintained the look of a team with defensive issues, Rovers lacked composure in the final third.
Too often, crosses were overhit, or a pass misjudged. "The final ball wasn't good enough," O'Neill said.
Twigg, the master goal-poacher, continues his search for a first European goal, primarily because his role in this system is to hold up and create for others. It wasn't to be his night.
Instead, it was N'Doye who proved the dominant attacking figure. As Rovers committed numbers -- although they didn't exactly pile forward recklessly -- they ran the risk of further pain.
Any flame of optimism was extinguished with 17 minutes remaining. Unsurprisingly, N'Doye was prominent. He rose highest to meet a Thomas Kristensen centre. Thompson acrobatically kept the ball out, but the rebound fell to Costa Rican international Bolanos who stooped to convert.
The Tallaght hardcore tried to maintain the volume levels, yet the intensity had been sucked from the occasion. O'Neill's immediate response was to withdraw Finn and Twigg.
Friday's derby with Bohemians ends their hiatus from league competition and there were worried looks when Sullivan was stretchered off in injury time. The initial prognosis was that the right full had sustained nothing more than a heavy knock.
By the time they reach Dalymount, the Hoops will know their Europa League play-off opponents. They will hope for a kinder result than this stern test, a challenge that was ultimately a bridge too far.
Shamrock Rovers --Thompson; Sullivan, Sives, Murray, Stevens; McCabe (Kelly 65), McCormack, Turner, Finn (Rice 74), Dennehy; Twigg (Kilduff 74).
FC Copenhagen -- Wiland, Sigurdsson, Ottesen, Jorgensen, Bengtsson; Kristensen (Absalonsen 90), Grindheim, Claudemir, Bolanos (Delaney 78); Diouf (Santin 82), N'Doye.
Ref -- Halis Ozkahya (Turkey)