Shamrock Rovers players celebrate the opening goal. Kostadin Andonov/INPHO
Job Done

Shamrock Rovers beat Shkupi to guarantee European group stage football

A 2-1 win away from home means Rovers will face Ferencvaros for a spot in the Europa League, with a spot in the Conference League guaranteed.

FC Shkupi 1

Shamrock Rovers 2

Shamrock Rovers win 5-2 on aggregate 

TRULY THE OPPOSITE of Having A (North) Macedonia.

Shamrock Rovers tonight took care of the challenge of FC Shkupi with all of the palpable stress of the folk checking passports at Shannon airport; a victory that guarantees them group stage football into the winter.

Rovers took a two-goal lead into tonight’s second leg in Skopje and left with it enhanced thanks to second-half goals by Rory Gaffney and Aidomo Emakhu, meaning they now progress to the Europa League play-off against Ferencvaros of Hungary. 

Win that and they will qualify for the group phase of the Europa League, lose it and they will drop into the groups of the third-tier Conference League, which brings a guarantee of €2.9 million in prize money.

They are in bonus territory now: the Conference League was their target, and they’ve achieved it with Jack Byrne and Pico Lopes injured, and Daniel Mandroiu sold to Lincoln. Their squad is an embarrassment of riches in League of Ireland terms, but it has proved necessary security in Europe.

Dylan Watts excelled tonight when asked to drop deep in the absence of the injured Chris McCann, while Daniel Cleary – making his European debut for Rovers – was a rock in the middle of the back three, alongside Lee Grace and his old Dundalk team-mate Sean Hoare, whose shirt-ripping frustration away to Ludogorets has given away to a succession of superb, calm performances. 

Gaffney, meanwhile, got the goal his performances in both legs deserved.

Shkupi began with an intensity that vanished within minutes, forcing a flurry of early corners that were dealt with by the Rovers defence. Soon the Rovers attack clicked into gear, making the most of the space afforded them abut squandering the opportunities to kill the tie before half-time. 

To accuse Gaffney of wasting the first chance would be unfair: his shot to the near post clipped just enough of goalkeeper Naumovski’s heel to deflect the ball onto the foot of the post. Rovers sliced Shkupi apart minutes later as Aaron Greene sent Gaffney galloping into space, who pulled the ball back for the arriving Ronan Finn. 

Rather than shooting, Finn brilliantly laid the ball to his right for Richie Towell, who saw a shot deflect off Naumovski and loop agonisingly over the crossbar. Rovers were content to sit relatively deep, coiled but ready to spring forward when Gaffney’s outstanding hold-up play and Greene’s tireless running allowed them to. Thus Shkupi were unable to carve Rovers open but did threaten from range as they did last week: Brazilian midfielder Queven sent a couple of hearts  aflutter when his shot skidded narrowly by Mannus’ post. Shkupi picked two strikers in Sundat Adetunji and Pepi Georgiev, but Rovers – led by Dan Cleary on his European debut for the club – dealt adeptly with their aerial threat. 

Instead they continued to create the best chances and should have settled the tie before the break. The outstanding Finn – whose only mis-step was to pick up the booking that rules him out of the next round – robbed a dithering Naumovski and pulled the ball back for Towell, whose shot was this time blocked on the line by Senghor Faustin. The rebound broke kindly for Gaffney, but his follow-up was well-saved by a splayed, advancing Naumovski. 

rory-gaffney-with-gagi-margvelashvili Rory Gaffney with Gagi Margvelashvili. Kostadin Andonov / INPHO Kostadin Andonov / INPHO / INPHO

Shkupi shook things up with a triple-sub at half-time and pushed centre-back Faustin into midfield: he almost instantly took up Queven’s mantle in sending a downtown piledriver whistling over Mannus’ crossbar. There was another nervy moment as Rovers were caught too open on a Shkupi’s throw-in, but substitute Trapanovski shanked his penalty-box shot over the bar while under pressure from Andy Lyons. 

Those few gathering beads of sweat were then wiped away just after the hour mark. Taking the ball 25 yards from goal, the outstanding Gaffney strode forward and unleashed his shot. This time the deflection went his way: the ball hit replacement defender Abdula Dzelil, arced above the helpless Naumovski and dropped beneath the crossbar. 

Gaffney’s next sprint was one of glory, joining the mass of bodies already celebrating in front of the Rovers bench. 

Mannus was alive to deny Shkupi an instant equaliser, springing to his left to claw away Georgiev’s powerful header from the penalty spot. 

The night had one last fabulous coda for Rovers, when teenage substitute Aidomo Emaku pounced on Naumovski’s error on the edge of the box, and stroked the ball into an empty net. Rovers were denied their clean sheet by a rare moment of sloppiness in the penultimate minute of stoppage time: Sean Kavanagh lost possession in front of his own box, and striker Adetunji slammed the ball home from the top of the ‘D’. 

It proved an annoying, glorious irrelevance. 

On Rovers march to a fourth two-legged tie of the summer, with another six group games to come. All that remains to be seen is in which competition this journey continues. 

Shkupi:  Kristijan Naumovski (captain); Angelce Timovski (Antonio Kalanovski, 78′), Senghor Faustin, Gagi Margvelashvili, Blerton Sheji (Vladica Brdarovski HT); Diene Albert Lamane (Kristijan Trapanovski, HT), Adem Ali (Abdula Dzeli HT), Queven; Freddie Alvarez,(Sundat Adetunji, Pepi Georgiev (Besir Demiri, 78′)

Shamrock Rovers: Alan Mannus; Sean Hoare, Dan Cleary, Lee Grace; Ronan Finn (captain) (Sean Gannon, 68′); Gary O’Neill, Dylan Watts, Richie Towell (Graham Burke, 60′); Andy Lyons (Neil Farrugia, 80′); Aaron Greene (Aidomo Emakhu, 80′), Rory Gaffney (Sean Kavanagh, 68′)

Referee: Aleksei Kulbakov (Belarus)

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