Sport Soccer

Monday 20 November 2017

Spurs reel in Rovers after shock Rice opener sees visiting hordes dare to dream

Tottenham 3
Shamrock Rovers 1

Stephen Rice celebrates after scoring the opening goal
Stephen Rice celebrates after scoring the opening goal

Daniel McDonnell, Europa League

AS the hour mark approached, the scoreboard at White Hart Lane was telling a remarkable story.

Shamrock Rovers were leading Spurs on their own patch and Harry Redknapp looked worried. Gareth Bale was sent to warm up and he pondered bringing Luka Modric into the fray.

This was supposed to be a routine evening, but for 10 minutes of the second half the Premier League giants trailed to the League of Ireland champions.

A rapid-fire comeback restored the expected order and gave Spurs the three points, but, once again, Michael O'Neill's side left foreign soil with their heads held high.

With magnificent performances from goalscorer Stephen Rice and Richard Brush, they belied some of the more pessimistic pre-match predictions.

The concession of soft goals to relinquish the advantage disappointed management, yet it didn't quench the spirit of the travelling masses, who stayed around to celebrate Rice's goal for a second time on the big screens at the North London venue.

White Hart Lane was theirs for this Europa League evening. All the noise was from the Park Lane end, where the Irish contingent had assembled.

They went through an array of tunes, managing to bring chants about Bohemians' financial troubles and their least favourite referee Damien Hancock to a wider audience. As half-time approached, with the game still scoreless, they mocked Spurs Champions League ambitions, and labelled them a 'small club in London.'

The pragmatists knew this was a night to enjoy whatever happened, considering the final curtain almost came down on the Hoops a mere six years ago.

It was the love of supporters that saved them, so they were always going to sing here regardless. But they were given extra reason to bellow as O'Neill's charges finally managed to avoid an early concession and, therefore, had time to grow into the occasion.

Glamour

With a 33,000 crowd and some star names in opposition, the glamour element was here. Redknapp selected an improved team from his side's opening draw in Greece and sprung a match-day shock with the inclusion of Jermaine Defoe to partner Roman Pavlyuchenko in a highly experienced front line.

O'Neill, for his part, also delivered a few surprises, with Aston Villa bound Enda Stevens on the bench and the veteran Scot Jim Paterson getting the nod at left back. Ex-Spurs man Rohan Ricketts was also dropped, with the pace of Billy Dennehy preferred.

Speed was a key word here. With Defoe up top, Aaron Lennon on the right wing, and full-backs Danny Rose and Kyle Walker bombing forward, there was no room for sluggishness in the Rovers ranks.

Containment was the priority, and parity was retained until the interval. Two stunning saves from Brush were the highlight, yet the overall success was maintaining shape. Rice, sitting in front of the back four, was outstanding. What he lacked in acceleration, was made up for in anticipation, with blocks impeccably timed.

Brush, who was on the scrapheap until July due to a CV packed with injuries, seized on Ryan Thompson's injury woe to take his opportunity.

First, he emerged as Defoe bore down on goal, successfully turning the England striker's shot onto the crossbar. Then, after Pavlyuchenko weaved away from Gary Sives, he advanced again to get his body in the way. He didn't have the monopoly on heroism. When a quick free was worked to Rose and his clip rebounded off the bar, Sebastian Bassong fired a shot into the face of Dan Murray.

The natives were getting frustrated, with Lennon struggling to impose on his return from injury. His marker Paterson was in trouble, however, and limped off at the break after shipping a heavy knock. Lennon didn't return either, with Andros Townsend sent into the fray. Stevens replaced Paterson, and Conor McCormack was introduced for Stephen O'Donnell.

O'Neill was looking to mix things up. In response, his team tore up the script. The endeavour of impressive right winger Gary McCabe earned a free. He stood up and let off a right-footer that Carlo Cudicini could only parry to the edge of the box, where Pat Sullivan followed up with a daisy-cutter that Rice expertly flicked into the net.

An unbelievable moment. A surreal scoreline. It lasted until the hour mark before unravelling in a dizzy six-minute spell. Frustratingly, the equaliser and lead goal came from relatively routine crosses. Mexican international Giovani dos Santos slipped into space on the left flank and delivered for Pavlyuchenko to dispatch a bullet header. Rovers had barely recovered when Townsend burst down the same wing and sent in an inviting ball which Defoe nodded home. Stevens could perhaps have cut out the danger.

A third followed in quick succession. Defoe tracked back to dispossess Rice with a tackle which had Irish voices crying foul. The frontman then embarked on a 60-yard run that pulled black shirts apart. Eventually, he teed up Giovani who finished with aplomb.

Suddenly, Spurs were safe, and Redknapp could relax. He brought on the youthful Yago Falque and Harry Kane, withdrawing Defoe and Rose. O'Neill sent on Ricketts to rapturous applause from both ends.

With the intensity dropping, further gaps appeared and Dennehy could have got on the scoresheet when he cut inside Townsend and fired over. Yet it was Brush who remained the busier netminder. As O'Neill later joked, it was end-to-end, but more into one than the other.

The full-time whistle was met with another lengthy ovation, with the sustained applause for the underdogs on a night for the scrapbooks.

Irish Independent

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