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'We've got to try and be true to ourselves' - Bohs braced for dizzying Europa challenge against PAOK
The Greek giants visit the Aviva Stadium for tonight’s first leg of the third qualifying round of the Europa Conference League.

SOME PLAYERS PROVIDE journalists with colour in press conferences, but Keith Buckley does so in a more literal sense. 

He works as a painter and decorator, and recently did a job at the home of one of the journalists on yesterday’s pre-match Zoom call. (Reader: know he comes highly recommended.) 

keith-buckley-celebrates-after-the-game Tommy Dickson / INPHO Keith Buckley celebrates after the second qualifying round victory over Dudelange. Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

Buckley says he learned a trade as footballers have to be “realistic”, but these last couple of weeks  have been vaguely surreal. With Dalymount Park unsuitable, Bohs have moved into the Aviva Stadium for Europa Conference League ties with Stjarnan of Iceland and Dudelange of Luxembourg.

The Conference League is a new, third-tier Uefa club competition, and Bohs are two rounds from its group phase. Cause an upset in this tie and they’ll need to pull off another in the play-off, against Hibernian of Scotland or NHK Rijeka of Croatia. 

“It’s not bad, captaining a team in Europe, and playing in the national stadium”, reflects Buckley. 

Bohs won both home ties 3-0 before as large a crowd as the government would allow, with the ticket allocation quickly selling out on both occasions. The general sale for tonight’s third qualifying round clash with PAOK of meanwhile, lasted all of 17 minutes.

Greece lightning, and all that. 

Buckley’s mother has been among the crowd for the European games, with a candle lit at her feet for good luck. 

“It’s a funny story, I kind of banned her from going to matches after I was about seven or eight, because she could be a bit of a loose cannon”, laughs Buckley. “That must be where I get it from! She was having a go at the other team, so she hasn’t been to a game since I was seven or eight. That was the first game she was at, our first game in the stadium. So it was actually good for me to see her at a game and to see her happy.

“I think she probably expects the Aviva all the time! If she goes to Dalymount she’d probably look around and say, ‘What’s going on here?’”

Bohs have a steep task to ensure a fourth trip to Dublin 4.

Greek heavyweights PAOK have been in the Europa League group stages in eight of the last 11 seasons, were Greek champions in 2019 and won their domestic cup last season while finishing a distant second to Olympiakos. 

Headline names abound. Striker Karol Świderski played in all three of Poland’s games at the Euros; Nelson Oliveria is a Portuguese international striker who you may remember from spells with Norwich, Swansea and Reading; Christos Tzolis is a teenage winger who has already scored for Greece at international level; and captain Vieirinha was part of Portugal’s Euro 2016-winning squad who scored against Ireland in a 2014 friendly in the United States. 

netherlands-feyenoord-paok SIPA USA / PA Images Shinji Kagawa in action for PAOK in a friendly against Feyenoord last week. SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

The most recognisable name, however, is Shinji Kagawa. The former Dortmund and Manchester United joined PAOK in January, though injury greatly restricted his involvement last season.

“Whoever plays it is just another name on the shirt, isn’t it?”, says Buckley. “It is an individual battle. You play against the most technical players on the other team when you are the sitting midfielder. So, I will focus on the individual battle first before looking at other things. 

“Look, you want to play against these type of players. Again, he is over the other side so let’s see if he can keep up the intensity against meself.”

Bohs may eke out an advantage with a fast start. While they are amid the rhythms of their season, PAOK are in pre-season and their match action has thus far been limited to friendlies against PSV and Feyenoord along with Greek side Volos.

“It’s no disadvantage, obviously, as they haven’t played a huge amount of games”, says Bohs manager Keith Long. “But if you look at some of their pre-season games, they were against high-level opposition. They are a team full of internationals, high quality and they will be ready tomorrow.” 

Kagawa played in PAOK’s two most-recent warm-up games, and PAOK’s approach has recently hinged on his availability. Manager Răzvan Lucescu – in his second spell at the club – profitably switched to a back three last season for a victory over runaway champions Olympiakos, and has only reverted to a back four when Kagawa has been available. 

Bohs have no fresh injury worries and are likely to stick with their 4-2-3-1. Its youthfulness is summed up in the fact it will feature Ross Tierney, Andy Lyons and Dawson Devoy, all of whom played against PAOK in the Uefa Youth League in 2019. 

Long is prioritising performance, to the point he wasn’t getting drawing into defining a good result in tonight’s first leg.

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“That’s the outcome isn’t it. We’re focused on a performance. Win, lose or draw, if we get what we’re looking for from the players, we’ll be nothing but happy. 

“The result is sort of immaterial if I’m being honest, we’ll concentrate on our performance, try and get after what we want to try and achieve and if we do that hopefully that will generate the outcome we are looking for.” 

“We are stepping up a real level tomorrow and I’ve got to believe in what we are, who we are as a group, what we are about as a team, that’s the challenge.

“There’s no point in coming here if we’re not prepared to test ourselves, if we just want to shut up shop, get bodies behind the ball and contain and counter. We can do all that type of stuff and we still might lose, so we’ve got to try and be true to ourselves, and we want to try and impose ourselves on the opposition.” 

A five-day turnaround from the second qualifying round brings its own challenges, with many of the backroom staff at Bohs working part-time and training limited to recovery and tactical work. 

““I think we had a short build-up the last time, because we were in Cork the previous week”, says Buckley. “To to be honest it’s just another game, another stadium, it’s 11 v 11 and that’s it.”

The 8,000 Bohs fans in the stadium tonight will be distanced by protocol but united by noise, treating it as anything but just another game. A dizzying challenge awaits. 

Bohemians vs PAOK, Europa Conference League second qualifying round first leg 

KO: 7.45pm

TV: The game will be streamed live on LOITV, costing €10. 

Bohemians (Possible XI): James Talbot; Andy Lyons, Rob Cornwall, Ciarán Kelly, Anto Breslin; Keith Buckley, Dawson Devoy; Ali Coote, Ross Tierney, Liam Burt; Georgie Kelly 

PAOK (Possible XI): Alexandros Paschalakis; Rodrigo Alves, Giannis Michailidis, Fernando Varela, Vieirinha; Andrija Živković, Stefan Schwab, Anderson Esiti, Christos Tzolis; Shinji Kagawa, Nelson Oliveira 

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