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Dublin: 0°C Thursday 6 May 2021

'I think we need to take the AC Milan out of it' - Byrne and Rovers chasing almighty European upset

The Italian giants arrive in Tallaght for a one-legged, Europa League qualifier tonight.

THE CONTRASTS WERE unsubtle and comic the last time AC Milan played a European game in Ireland. 

Here walked these suave Gods of European football through Athlone, splattering mud on the hems of their Armani suits before being led out to a heaving, claustrophobic ground by a pipe band and a goat. 

That was in 1975, and Milan drew 0-0 before eventually seeing off Athlone Town at the San Siro in the second leg. Milan were ultimately knocked out at the quarter-final stage by a Club Brugge side that would lose the final to Liverpool. 

Milan return to face Shamrock Rovers in the second qualifying round of the Europa League this evening, but there’s no template for this visit in the library of Irish football’s underdog tales.

For one, Tallaght Stadium is much too slick a venue to muddy anyone’s pre-game loafers, while the pandemic means, lamentably, the game is much less an occasion and will be played without fans. (And, probably, a ceremonial pre-game goat.)

The game is a one-off, too: there are no second legs and no second chances as the game will be settled on the night. 

The empty stands will be covered by banners this evening, one of which is sponsored by a betting company and reads, “Stylish, beautiful football. Thank Jack Byrne afterwards.”

It’s a reminder that if Rovers do something remarkable tonight, Byrne will probably be central to it. Not that he’s feeling the pressure. 

“What is pressure? It’s a good thing to have and if that sign wasn’t up there and if it was about someone else, I would probably be thinking it should be about me. I want that pressure.” 

Graham Burke says all the pressure is on Milan tonight, given they are the kind of club that see themselves among the Champions League elite. While only Real Madrid have won the European Cup more often than the Rossoneri, they haven’t even been in the Champions League since 2013/14 and were excluded from last year’s Europa League over breaches of Financial Fair Play. 

They are amid a resurgence under Stefano Pioli however, who replaced Marco Giampaolo last October. Pioli was contracted to the end of the season and was set to stand aside for Ralf Rangnick, but having found a 4-2-3-1 formation to bring the best out of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, he led Milan on a superb run of form post-lockdown to earn the club a European spot, himself a two-year contract extension, and Ralf Rangnick an awkward phone call.

the-match-of-the-heart-2020 Paolo Maldini and Stefano Pioli. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Milan’s form post-lockdown was sensational: they went unbeaten in their final 12 games; scored more goals than any other side in Italy, Spain, Germany or England; and only Real Madrid collected more points across the whole of Europe. 

This is their first competitive game since the end of last season, however, and the fact Rovers have been playing since the end of July is causing some concern. “We are ready, I hope. It’s a game that scares us a lot”, said Paolo Maldini, back at the club as Technical Director. 

“Anything can happen”, says Byrne. “I can understand that we are in our season and they’re not in their season. But they are a world-class team with international players all over their squad so they are going to be fit and ready. He might have to come out and say that. He’s not going to come out and say it’s going to be an easy game for us. Nobody will say that.” 

Ibrahimovic is fit to travel and is expected to play, with new signing Sandro Tonali – who played at Tallaght for the Italy U21s last year – is likely to be on the bench along with another new signing, Brahim Diaz, who once played with Byrne at Manchester City. 

“I think I kept him out of the squad there for a few years! But he was a very good player when he was coming through, we signed him from Malaga. He is a couple of years younger than me, I think he’s Phil Foden’s age group.  You could see he was going to be a good player.” 

Byrne hasn’t played against many of the rest of the Milan squad, though did see a free-kick of his sliced past Donnarumma in an U21 international in 2016.

Source: FAI TV/YouTube

Milan will be without the injured Alessio Romagnoli – who also played in that U21s game – tonight, along with Rafael Leao, who has tested positive for Covid-19, and the suspended Ante Rebic. Rovers, meanwhile, are missing the suspended Liam Scales along with Greg Bolger and Rory Gaffney, both of whom are injured. 

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Byrne has struggled somewhat with a back issue over the last few weeks but both he and manager Stephen Bradley say he’s back to full fitness. 

A local historian reflected in 1975 that Milan’s visit was the biggest thing to happen to Athlone since “the Earl of Lucan burned down the town’s bridge in the 17th century”,but for Rovers, this visit of Italian giants is the biggest since the last one, when Juventus won 3-0 over two legs in the 2010/11 Europa League qualifying rounds. 

stephen-bradley-with-amauri Stephen Bradley with Juventus' Amauri in the Europa League qualifiers a decade ago. Source: Andrea Staccioli Insidefoto

Bradley was among the Rovers players in those games. 

“It’s totally different as a player”, he says of the build-up to that tie. “But once the game kicks off, you’re in the game. You can’t think of the name on the back on the shirt, it’s me against him and that’s the way you’ve got to play it.

“Leading up to it, it’s a lot of hype and talk but once the whistle goes, it’s not about playing the shirt, you’ve got to play the man.” 

The approach is different as a manager, says Bradley. “The difficulty of the game has gone up levels, but we have to approach it as another game.” 

“I think we need to take the AC Milan out of it and approach it as 11 v 11″, says Byrne. “We’ve done our analysis on them, and it’s going to be weird for them watching clips of Aaron Greene running in behind and seeing how they can deal with Shamrock Rovers. For us, we are taking the AC Milan out of it and try to do well for the club.” 

Rovers will be deprived of the atmosphere created by their supporters but can take heart from the fact it’s a one-off game, although Byrne isn’t thinking too much about the outcome. 

“You need to just think about the game and not about what can happen if we do win. Just take the game as it comes and just try and win. If we did win then I think we’d have to open the pubs back up in Dublin for a few days.”

Although they have said the right things in public, Milan remain white-hot favourites for tonight’s game. Rovers, however, seem unlikely to be consumed and limited by nerves tonight.

As his pre-game press conference broke up on Tuesday, Bradley was asked whether Milan would be wearing their traditional red-and-black stripes at Tallaght. 

“Yeah we asked them, just for the Bohs effect”, joked Bradley.

Rovers won’t need any extra motivation tonight – even without a crowd – as they aim to record a result that will be heard right across Europe. 

Shamrock Rovers (probable XI): Alan Mannus; Ronan Finn; Joey O’Brien, Roberto Lopes, Lee Grace; Danny Lafferty; Aaron McEneff, Gary O’Neill; Jack Byrne, Graham Burke; Aaron Greene

AC Milan (probable XI): Gianluigi Donnarumma; Davide Calabria, Simon Kjaer, Matteo Gabbia, Théo Hernandez; Franck Kessie, Ismael Bennacer; Samu Castillejo, Hakan Calhanoglu, Alexis Saelemaekers; Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

On TV: RTE Two; KO: 7pm

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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