IT’S NOT OFTEN that a single 90 minutes of football can define a whole season, let alone a managerial tenure, but Shamrock Rovers boss Stephen Kenny will need no reminder of how much is at stake in tonight’s Champions League qualifier against FK Ekranas.
The murmurs of discontent were palpable around Tallaght Stadium last Friday night as the Hoops squandered possession and territory against an organized Bray Wanderers who kept the door firmly bolted to earn a scoreless draw. Points dropped by both Sligo Rovers and St Patrick’s Athletic went unpunished while second-placed Drogheda United took advantage to open up a six-point gap between themselves and the defending champions, who now lie a distant fourth.
If Friday’s listless and unimaginative performance summed up all that is bad about Rovers this season, last Tuesday night’s first leg against Ekranas in Tallaght was very nearly a throwback to the majesty of last season. Rovers prodded and probed, asking questions of the Ekranas defence and forcing keeper Emilljus Zubas to earn his stripes as the visitors’ standout performer.
At the final whistle tonight, the Hoops might well find themselves looking back at opportunities squandered but with a 0-0 draw in their back pocket, they know that a clean sheet in Lithuania will be enough to force the tie into extra-time and penalties at the very least. That much will provide some measure of confidence. Ekranas had few clear-cut chances in the first leg and Rovers’ defence has been back to its miserly best since the humiliation by Bohemians last month, with just two goals conceded in the four games since.
At best, Rovers might be able to scramble home an away goal as they did against Bnei Yehuda of Israel two seasons ago, setting up a glamour tie against Italian giants Juventus in the Europa League qualifiers. Another European giant, RSC Anderlecht, awaits should they progress tonight as does the familiar safety net of a place in the Europa League play-offs should they crash out against the Belgians in the next round.
Kenny is expected to broadly stick with the same 4-5-1 formation and personnel deployed in the first leg, though Ken Oman is a doubt having limped off in the first half against Bray. Oman’s centre-half partner Craig Sives is expected to be fit for selection again after sitting out last Friday night but Stephen Rice also faces a race to be ready.
Gary Twigg, who is still goalless in 15 appearances in Europe, is expected to lead the line on his return from a one-match domestic suspension.
FK Ekranas v Shamrock Rovers is live on Setanta Ireland tonight, kick-off 6pm.