By Matthew Foley
Shamrock Rovers secured a place in the group stages of European competition on Tuesday evening with a 2-1 win (5-2 on aggregate) against North Macedonian Champions Shkupi in Skopje.
Second half goals from in-form strikers Rory Gaffney and Aidomo Emakhu were enough to lead the Hoops to victory in what was both a professional European performance.
The Hoops travelled to Skopje with a 3-1 lead from last week’s first leg tie in Tallaght, after a crucial two goal cushion was ensured by Gary O’Neill’s injury-time stunner in front of the South Stand. Head Coach Stephen Bradley stated in the build-up that he would be coming to win the game in the second leg and that intent was clear from the very start with Rory Gaffney and Richie Towell both coming close to breaking the deadlock in the opening stages.
Opportunities for the North Macedonian outfit were few and far between, largely thanks to resolute defending from the Hoops rearguard, epitomised by Dan Cleary who was making his European debut for the Club at the heart of the defence. The Hoops were comfortable for large parts of the first half, soaking up pressure and looking to get forward at every opportunity. The best chance of the half arguably fell to Richie Towell ten minutes before the interval. Ronan Finn did well to pick out Towell in some space in the penalty area. Towell took a touch and composed himself before firing a low shot towards goal that looked destined to find the net however his shot was blocked on the line by Faustin Senghor and it remained scoreless going into the break.
Shkupi came out with a renewed sense of purpose and urgency at the beginning of the second period, with Senghor and Pepi Gjorgiev both having chances to cut the aggregate deficit in half. Rovers made sure to stay compact in defence and absorbed the pressure brilliantly, nullifying the majority of the home side’s advances.
The Hoops’ hard work was rewarded in the 65th minute when they got the goal that arguably sealed the tie. Substitute Graham Burke found Gaffney whose shot from the edge of the area took a deflection and looped over Naumovski in the Shkupi goal and into the back of the net.
With Shkupi continuing to push, Bradley brought on further fresh legs in Neil Farrugia and Aidomo Emahku and with six minutes to go, the latter doubled Rovers lead. An error from Naumovski left Emakhu with an open goal and he made no mistake, slotting the ball into the empty net. Adetunji did get a consolation goal for the hosts but it was too little too late for the home side.
The Hoops celebrated after the final whistle in front of a small band of travelling supporters. The delight etched on everyone’s face that is associated with the Club. The Hoops set out to go one better than last year by qualifying for a European group stage competition. That target has now been realised by a squad who continue to perform and impress on the biggest stage.
Rovers now progress to the Play-Off Round of the UEFA Europa League to face Hungarian outfit Ferencváros for a place in the group stages, with the first leg set to take place in Budapest next week. A place in the UEFA Europa Conference League Group Stage awaits for the side defeated in that tie, however, the Hoops, with confidence and momentum behind them, will relish the opportunity of testing themselves against the experienced Hungarian champions.
It’s a quick turnaround for Rovers as we are back in action on the domestic front in less than 72 hours. A trip to the Ryan McBride Brandywell awaits for the Hoops on Friday evening in a top-of-the-table clash as the Hoops aim to extend their lead at the top of the League table.
Shamrock Rovers: A Mannus, S Hoare, D Cleary, L Grace, R Finn (S Gannon 68’), R Towell (G Burke 62’), D Watts, G O’Neill, A Lyons (N Farrugia 81’), R Gaffney (S Kavanagh 69’); A Greene (A Emakhu 81’).
Subs not used: L Pohls, T Leitis, G Tetteh, J Ferizajm J Byrne.
Booked: R Finn, D Cleary, D Watts, A Emakhu, S. Kavanagh.
Shkupi: K Naumovski, A Timovski (B Demiri 79’), F Senghor, G Margvelashvili, B Sheji (V Brdarovski 46’), A Adem (K Trapanovski 46’), F Alvarez, Queven, P Gorgiev (A Kalanoski 79’), S Adetunji; A Diene (A Dzelil 46’).
Subs not used: S Chajani, U Sulejman, A Iljazi, A Meljichi, M Bajrami, A Zlatkov; A Abazi.
Booked: Queven, B Sheji, Ali Adem, F Senghor; A Kalanoski.
Referee: Aleksei Kulbakov (BLR)