Saturday 16 December 2017

Sheppard lifeline not enough


Enda Stevens of Shamrock Rovers is challenged by PAOK Salonika's Bruno Cirillo during the Europa League game in Thessaloniki last night - Rovers
Enda Stevens of Shamrock Rovers is challenged by PAOK Salonika's Bruno Cirillo during the Europa League game in Thessaloniki last night - Rovers

IN a week of Greek strikes, PAOK produced a pair from the top drawer to undo a Shamrock Rovers side whose search for a Europa League point continues.

Yet again, Michael O'Neill's charges gave superior opposition a fright before ultimately falling short. However, they were still given a rousing reception at the final whistle from their fans, who recognise just what a leap it is for these players to encounter teams of this calibre.

Nevertheless, for all the deserved praise the Hoops receive for their courage and determination, professional pride ensured a deep sense of frustration at a third successive reverse in this sphere.

PAOK were the better team, but demonstrated certain vulnerabilities that the League of Ireland champions were unable to fully exploit.

"I feel down for the players because they've given a phenomenal effort and it would be nice to see that recognised by having some points on the board," said a deflated O'Neill.

"They got two very good strikes from distance, but defensively we could have done better. Still, we're very proud. The players deserve all the plaudits for their performances in Europe because they have exceeded anything done by any other League of Ireland team. They belong on this stage."

The week's rest had given O'Neill extra preparation time, but a late injury to Gary Twigg disrupted the plans. Rovers went into battle with their usual 4-5-1, but this time, Karl Sheppard ploughed a lone furrow up front.

Elsewhere, goalkeeper Ryan Thompson -- who tweeted earlier in the day that a friend back home in Jamaica had been shot dead -- stepped in for Richard Brush.

Craig Sives was relegated to the bench due to a groin problem, meaning that Ken Oman returned for his first appearance since July, while O'Neill went with a pair of full-backs on the left, with Enda Stevens playing behind the experienced Jim Paterson.

Alas, a familiar error was committed in the form of an early concession. PAOK may have owned the ball from the outset, yet the tempo was relatively low, which gave the Irish visitors a chance to settle. They just needed to do the simple things right, like clear their lines properly from a corner.

But Dan Murray swiped unconvincingly at a PAOK delivery, with the ball making its way to Costin Lazar 25 yards out. He took aim with deadly precision and his thunderbolt flashed past the helpless Thompson.

Rovers regrouped and enjoyed some time on the ball in the period that followed. Positive moments were delivered by Billy Dennehy, who presented Lino with some problems down the right. The Kerryman flashed a daisycutter wide of Kostas Chalkias' goal after a purposeful run.

PAOK quickly regained firm control, but Rovers managed to keep the deficit at the minimum until the interval, with good fortune playing a large part. Murray blocked another Lazar attempt from close range, while left winger Vieirinha volleyed over following a prolonged spell of passes.


Half-time was welcomed and, once again, it prompted a Rovers revival. Within three minutes of the restart, they were level. Dennehy embarked on another mazy run which was halted illegally by replacement, Miroslaw Sznaucner.

The winger dusted himself down to float the ball into the danger area and the unmarked Sheppard spun away to dispatch an accurate header.

Game on. Rovers responded with their best 10 minutes of the match. Yet they struggled to maintain that level and fell behind again after the hour mark.

Vieirinha was given too much time when he instigated a quick one-two with Serbian Vladimir Ivic. The former Porto youth has attracted interest from Zenit St Petersburg and Blackburn Rovers this year and demonstrated his prowess with a superb right-footed finish.

Rovers reverted to comeback mode again, but the exertions were taking their toll on some tired legs. Ciaran Kilduff and Ronan Finn were sent into fray, with Kilduff joining Sheppard up front.

The problem was getting the ball there, with late arrival Gary McCabe losing his footing in the dying stages when Rovers were probing uncovered space in the box.

With that, a chance to collect prize-money was gone. Instead, minds will turn to Monday, where a win over UCD in considerably humbler settings will deliver the domestic title.

"That was our objective at the start of the season," stressed O'Neill. "Nights like this have only increased our desire to taste it again."

PAOK -- Chalkias, Etto, Cirillo, Malezas, Lino (Sznaucner 28); Arias, Ivic, Lazar; Salpigidis (Papazoglou 88), Vieirinha; Athanasiadis (Georgiadis 62).

Shamrock Rovers -- Thompson, Sullivan, Oman, Murray, Stevens; Dennehy, Turner (Kilduff 74), Rice, O'Donnell, Paterson (Finn 74); Sheppard (McCabe 83).

Ref -- TM Asumaa (Finland).

Irish Independent

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