Shamrock Rovers quietly earmarked Greek opponents PAOK as the side who would provide the best opportunity to pick up a point or two when the Europa League draw was made in last month, but since then the Greek side have held Tottenham to a draw and picked up a point away to Rubin Kazan.
With the league title so close, a win against either UCD or Galway will keep the trophy in Tallaght, Rovers will be hoping to cap a remarkable season with a memorable performance in the hostile atmosphere of the Toumba Stadium.
Right back Pat Sullivan says that despite the hype and glamour of the Europa League, in particular last month’s trip to White Hart Lane, the league has always been the main focus.
“European games are amazing, you can always say you scored a goal and have the DVD”, said Sullivan of his career defining volley in Belgrade.
“You don’t want to say we had the league won, but we threw it away.”
With Derry City and Sligo Rovers keep apace with the champions for much of the season, Europe looked like it could prove a profitable distraction but Rovers have rallied since qualifying and now low set to take a deserved 17th league.
Tonight’s is the Hoops’ ninth European game this season and it has made for a congested close to the campaign but the trip to PAOK comes a full week after last Thursday’s win over Derry and has provided an opportunity to prepare in full for the first time.
Rovers have shown against Partizan Belgrade and Spurs that they are not afraid or unable to give sides of this level a real game and it is easy to forget that there is still a huge gap in quality between the Irish champions and Greek third place team.
The summer football season has been credited with providing a springboard for Irish sides to progress in Europe but at the half way stage of the group games, manager Michael O’Neill noted a startling difference in the two sides.
“Our players are playing their 54th competitive game of the season, PAOK have played just six league games” the Northern Ireland man noted.
The win over Derry took a huge weight off the shoulders of those players though O’Neill said.
“We are now in a strong position in our domestic league. The mood in the squad is very good. That will lead to a positive mindset approaching the game.”
How the game will play out
Unlike Rovers, PAOK are a very experienced side with a number of starters in their thirties so as O’Neill noted in the pre-match build up, patience will be vital. So if the Hoops wait for their opportunities to get forward, particularly in the wide positions, there will be goals for the visitors. PAOK have conceded five in their opening six games and look most comfortable keeping a narrow position in defence, the overlapping of Sullivan and left back Jim Patterson could be vital. PAOK’s own right back Etto though is a force to be reckoned with and Patterson will have to be careful.
Stalwart defender Craig Sives looks set to be fit for the trip after a doubt but Gary O’Neill remains out with a calf injury.