Sport Soccer

Saturday 24 March 2018

O'Neill joy as Hoops seal glamour clash


Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

JOB done. This game will fade from the memory quickly, but the outcome could have a lasting impact.

Michael O'Neill was a bit worried when Flora Tallinn emerged from the drum as Rovers' Champions League opponents. His fears proved unfounded, as his side moved into the third-round qualifiers -- and a showdown with FC Copenhagen -- with relative ease.

Estonia remains a happy hunting ground for League of Ireland clubs. Four have visited in the last decade without conceding a goal.

A limited Flora team looked more dangerous in Tallaght last Tuesday, and will rue the tame penalty which Alan Mannus saved on that occasion. However, over the two legs, Rovers were a superior force without really hitting the high notes. O'Neill lauded the manner in which they saw this tie out to bring at least another €220,000 into the coffers, with the manager likely to be given some of that money to strengthen his squad and improve the contracts of some of his current players.

"To a man, we were excellent. We bossed the game," said the delighted Northern Irishman. "It's just amazing that we didn't manage to win on the night, but the objective was to get through to Copenhagen and we've managed to do that.

"It's great for the club. It gives us four more European games and the financial implications of that as well; everything is positive about tonight."

Certainly, the merry band of Rovers fans were gearing up for a big celebration in the hospitable Baltic state.

While O'Neill said that the clammy conditions posed a difficulty, the elements did the Dubliners a favour, with showers during the day and the temperature cooler than what was initially forecast.

It was up to the hosts to put the heat on the League of Ireland champions but, despite manager Martin Reim promising an improved display, the limitations from the first leg were apparent. Flora struggled to energise the mediocre home turnout.

O'Neill had introduced the bite of Conor McCormack in place of Stephen O'Donnell, and the Carlingford native made his mark early with a tackle on Rauno Alliku that ended the Estonian's evening prematurely. He was also selected for his aptitude in a holding role, and lived up to that expectation. Purists wouldn't have enjoyed the first half, which was essentially a midfield scrap on a poor pitch.

There was a brief scare when Flora central midfielder Sergei Mosnikov made a purposeful run that resulted with a shot that fizzed narrowly wide. Generally, however, the Dubliners always had the edge.

The half-time message was to commit numbers forward with extra purpose. Flora's vulnerabilities were then exposed.

Half-chances for Billy Dennehy, Dean Kelly and Ken Oman before the hour mark were evidence of Rovers stepping things up a gear. Still, with the margin at the bare minimum, concentration was key. Flora left full-back Gert Kams made one burst that served as a reminder, but Rovers snuffed out any threat and created the better openings.

Indeed, Flora 'keeper Stanislav Pedok produced the save of the match with 20 minutes left to divert a Kelly header to safety.


His opposite number, Mannus, was untroubled on his last Shamrock Rovers appearance ahead of his move to St Johnstone tomorrow. It looked like he might be called into action one minute from time when a rash McCormack foul gave Flora a free outside the area. Alas, a dreadful effort from Siim Luts sailed over the bar. And that was that.

Mannus will be missed in Copenhagen next Wednesday. So will his compatriot, Chris Turner, who picked up a second yellow and is suspended.

While the Dubliners face a daunting task, O'Neill was accentuating the positives. Copenhagen only kicked off their league campaign last weekend and meet West Ham in a friendly tonight. As it happens, the Rovers party are flying back through the Danish capital today, and the manager and his assistant Jim Magilton will stop off to take in that encounter.

"It will be a hell of a test but I said to the players in there, 'I don't care what level of opposition you play against; if you put the ball in the box with the quality that we have, you will cause any team problems'," said O'Neill.

"In Modena last year, we had chances and got into good areas on the pitch. Juventus struggled at times with that. We will be ready."

They will enter that challenge without any pressure. The important mission has been accomplished. Anything from here is a bonus.

Irish Independent

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