Pat's promise Zalgiris a red-hot welcome
THE unorthodox appearance of Richmond Park tends to take visiting European teams by surprise and combined with the searing heat, it's fair to suggest that Zalgiris Vilnius might have pictured a different setting when they landed St Patrick's Athletic in the Europa League.
After a 2-2 draw in last Thursday's first leg in warm Lithuania, it is normally time to mention the difference in temperature ahead of the return.
But this is no ordinary Irish week, and Saints boss Liam Buckley has ordered his players to stay hydrated and sit in the shade ahead of this evening's second leg in Inchicore.
It will be worth it if they finish the job to secure progression to the second round and a meeting with opposition from either Armenia or Macedonia, where the travel cost would eat into the €250,000 reward.
After reaching the third hurdle last year, and a clash with Bundesliga side Hannover 96 that was a bridge too far, 'keeper Brendan Clarke says the Saints players are determined to go one step further this time around. "It is possible, but the draw has to be kind," he stressed.
First things first, they face a considerable test in the form of Zalgiris, who fielded eight full internationals seven days ago and frustrated their fans by twice relinquishing the lead.
Manager Marek Zub feels they expended too much energy in the first half, and it cost them in the end. Yet that is also a testament to the patient style of play that Buckley encourages, which is suited to this sphere.
Indeed, while it is usually customary for the opposing team to come to Dublin and deliver vaguely patronising platitudes about Irish spirit, aggression and directness, Zalgiris captain Andrius Skerla, who is well versed on football in this part of the world after a five-year stint in Scotland with Dunfermline, acknowledged that the League of Ireland leaders adopt a different philosophy.
"They are not a typical British team who try to play long balls," said the 36-year-old, betraying some wayward geography. "They try to play short, nice football, good-looking football for the supporters."
Saints full-back Ger O'Brien, who rescued the draw in Vilnius with a rare strike from outside the area, feels that the emphasis on ball retention gives them a better chance in Europe, even referencing the difficulties of Giovanni Trapattoni's charges in that department.
"It's probably why Irish clubs in Europe years ago did not do well, we were probably more of a route-one league and could not retain possession," said the Dubliner.
"We have seen it with our international team at the Euros – if you don't keep the ball, then you get the runaround and teams start to open you up quite easily when you are tired. In the second half last week, we kept the ball and they were out on their feet in the last 15 minutes."
The Richmond Park factor is also hugely significant, of course. Remarkably, the Saints have won nine of their 13 home European matches at the venue, with a five-in-a-row record entering this encounter.
With half the ground closed off, the cramming of spectators into the remainder makes for a uniquely intense atmosphere. The hard work of the club's patrons has facilitated improvement on the stand behind the goal which, pending UEFA approval, should bring tonight's capacity close to 2,800.
"It reminds me a little bit of Milltown," says Buckley, a former Shamrock Rovers player, who reports a clean bill of health on the fitness front. "You can literally touch the guys and hear what they say. It can be intimidating.
"We are not in a bad position but we won't be taking anything for granted as they are decent.
"They pass the ball well and are a big physical team. It's a tricky tie; when you look at the teams we could have got, they are one of the toughest."
Still, with a 0-0 or 1-1 draw good enough to advance, and Saints players believing they are capable of winning the match, it will be a disappointment if they let this opportunity slip by.
St Patrick's Athletic (probable) – Clarke, O'Brien, Kenna, Browne, Bermingham; Russell, Bolger, Brennan; Byrne, Fagan, Forrester.
Zalgiris – Vitkauskas; Vaitkunas, Skerla, Peric, Silenas; Zulpa; Svrljuga, Kuklys, Komolov, Zagurskas; Bilinski.
REF – I Pristovnik (Cro)