Friday 23 March 2018

O'Neill determined to maintain league record against Sligo pretenders

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

THEY are seen as equals, the twin powers who are expected to divvy up the domestic trophies between them in the coming seasons.

Tonight, Shamrock Rovers and Sligo Rovers resume the rivalry that attracted 36,000 to the Aviva Stadium last November for perhaps the most memorable footballing occasion the new stadium has seen in a clash that is expected to be crucial in this year's race for the Airtricity League title.

Apart from the Setanta Sports Cup, which is enjoying its last few weeks in Dalymount, the nation's trophies reside in either Tallaght or the Showgrounds.

Indeed, if the Hoops win the final of the all-Ireland competition next weekend, the duopoly will be complete.

Both Paul Cook and Michael O'Neill possess squads that -- on paper -- look far stronger than those around them and, although Sligo have shown some indifferent form in recent weeks and are currently in fourth, the champions lead the way at the top of the league.

However, despite the outward appearances, this has been a mostly one-sided relationship over the last few years.

Since O'Neill was appointed manager of the Hoops, his side have lost just once over 90 minutes to the westerners.

They have won nine, drawn three -- although Ciaran Kelly's penalty shootout heroics ensured Sligo's triumph in last season's FAI Cup final -- and their sole loss came in last season's EA Sports Cup semi-final.

The aggregate score from their meetings is 21-9 in favour of tonight's hosts, who have taken 23 out of a possible 27 league points from their clashes with the Bit O'Red.

Already this season, they have beaten them away in the league and cruised through the teams' Setanta semi-final showdown -- 4-1 over two the legs.

Sligo can count themselves unlucky on occasion, but they have been guilty of playing plenty of the football when the two sides meet without taking their chances against O'Neill's more clinical charges.

And there is a sense in Tallaght that tonight's visitors get too much credit for their attacking football at the expense of the results the Hoops are racking up.

O'Neill is keen that his side's record against the Connacht side be recognised and after the perceived injustice of their draw with Dundalk on Monday, he is looking for a reaction that would leave his side seven points ahead of Sligo at the top.

"Our record against them is excellent, especially so far this season. We'll be going out looking for the win on the night," the former Northern Ireland international said.

"If you look at our record in the last two or three seasons, I think we've lost maybe one game.

"It's the perfect game for us really, at this time. We were disappointed by the result on Monday, and felt a bit hard done by, to be honest.

"So, the players will be looking to get back out on the pitch and make up for that."

For Sligo, the stats make for grim reading and if they are to truly push the Dubliners this season, they need to address the imbalance and achieve a first league win over the Hoops since November 2008.

Irish Independent

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