Friday, August 08, 2008

In Rod We Trust

Then there was one - first Bohs, followed by Cork City, then Drogs. Pats are our remaining Euro representatives for 2008 and it will be a tough ask for the Saints to see off Elfsborg of Sweden to maintain their progress in the UEFA Cup.

There hangs a frustrating smog over the non-achievement of our European representatives thus far - Drogheda's late drama last Wednesday notwithstanding. But behind those apparent disappointments lays some basis for future optimism - that is assuming that our clubs don't collapse under the weight of their combined financial commitments.

The form of Cork City offered great hope ahead of their UEFA Cup 1st qualifying round - that turned out to be a false dawn as the Leesiders ' defensive fragility was cruelly exposed in those moray eel- infested waters. City shipped 6 goals across the two legs, most of those in a 4-0 second leg defeat. The air of gloom was tangible, for we have come to demand that our sides negotiate the first hurdle of Euro action.

Such was the case with Pats, who broke new ground by winning an away leg in Europe for the first time in their 47 year Euro history. The Saints built upon that with a home win - recording wins in both legs for the first time also. They must see off IF Elfsborg of Sweden in the Second qualifying round inn order to advance to the Group stages of the UEFA Cup.

Therein lies a connection with our Intertoto representatives Bohemians. The confident Gypsys rattled Rhyl with a 9-3 aggregate win in their first round tie; that scoreline represented a record VE for an Irish side. Another incremental progression for our domestic game. Next up for the Bohs were Skonto Riga. This was another faltering effort from a well-prepared Irish representative, with Pat Fenlon's side slipping out on the away goals rule - that after spurning a couple of excellent opportunities on their trek into deepest Latvia for the first leg.

That same Latvian side progressed into the UEFA Cup qualifiers to provide the opposition for a certain IF Elfsborg of Sweden. The Swedes won by the only goal of the tie, scored on their home patch - they now represent a formidable bouncer between St. Pats and a sustained involvement in Europe. They too are chasing a league title - just a single point behind the leaders after both have played 17 times, their defensive record commands a bow. They have conceded just once in Europe - just five in their domestic league. Pats will need to be at their fluid best to progress.

It is a mark of our progress that we anticipate second round matches nowadays. We are still learners at that stage - the odd heady third round moment a la Derry City and Shelbourne fans the dreams of group stage heaven. Cork's capitulation was uncharacteristic as they have been sturdy flag bearers in recent years. Setanta Cup participants Cliftonville, of the now defunct Irish Premier League (it's been jazzed up into an invitational league now) and widely regarded to be the best footballing team in Northern Ireland were on the wrong end of a 10-0 hiding against Copenhagen.

That sort of thing just doesn't happen to eircom League clubs anymore. Yet still we had Shoddy Collins pissing all over our game on the edges of Drogheda's two legs against the affluent Ukrainians of Dinamo Kyiv. There is no denying that the bad cop speaks some truth, he just seems to revel in garnishing that truth with a well-aimed elbow to the league. This a man who very recently attempted to get involved with Longford Town. Possibly he cannot compete with the verbal flourish of the good cop el Rico, opting instead to go the direct route with his negativity.

The Champions League is the Valhalla of club football. Only the juiciest, tenderest peas get to enter this moneyspinner; at present qualification for the Group Stages represents the summit of our ambitions. Thus, the pairing of Drogheda United and Dinamo Kyiv represented an ideal opportunity for us to measure our game against the worst that the Group Stage has to offer. Much fanfare was given to the fact that the Ukrainians have qualified for 10 of the last 11 Group Stages. It was also mentioned, in a less celebratory fashion, that these boys had failed to register a win in any of their group games last season.

Yet this side pulled Drogheda apart with the ease of a lion playing with a mouse. Their technique was excellent, their application less so. But one could have fit Roddy's mouth into the chasm in class and ability between the sides. One could have fit Roddy's mouth into the chasm in effort between the sides during the second leg. Workrate and application have always been the tools with which sides of inferior skill and technique from Northern Europe have levelled the playing field against more skilful but less hungry opposition.

Here were two fully professional sides who should both have been prepared and cosseted to the same prematch level. Both should have been equally fit. But after all the preparation there still exists the possibility that one side may be better organised or prepared than the other. Differences in skill and ability can be lessened by tactics; in a case such as Drogheda's often the 'in their face, deny them space' method is applied.

Paul Doolin's charges stretched every sinew and ligament to the nth degree. Every player gave 100% - contrary to some pundits' declarations of 110%. Still they were almost always second to the ball; their own efforts tired them so that often their own passes were tired and wanting. This was an uphill battle at every turn. Yet this is the level to which we aspire.

Throughout the pitch the Dinamo players were pacier, with greater control skill and technique - granted their defence was poorly organised. The difference here was in the playing staff - not one United player would make it into Dinamo's starting eleven. Obviously that's why such players are valued in millions of euro as opposed to tens of thousands. Yet this side struggle at group level in Champions League football.

We have a huge way to go in order to attract the quality of player required to sustain group qualification; lucky draws combined with freak results may allow us an adventure in the meantime. But Roddy does have a point.

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