Despite a courageous second half performance from Shamrock Rovers at Tallaght Stadium on Tuesday night they were held to a scoreless draw by FK Ekranas in the first leg of their Europa League second round qualifier.
This was a typically slow starting European tie with Ekranas content to wait out the opening period of play and allow Shamrock Rovers to dictate the pace. The result was a comfortable opening quarter for the Hoops, but one in which they failed to test their Lithuanian opponents.
Andjelkovic and Luksa both offered their hosts a chance to showcase their dead-ball skills, conceding silly free kicks early on, but neither of Gary McCabe’s efforts created a threat to the Ekranas goal.
Killian Brennan then almost released Gary Twigg with a perceptive ball over the top, but the Rovers hit-man hesitated and the chance was gone. In truth, Rovers’ play was largely disconnected and only Brennan and Stephen Rice showed the kind of quality that threatened to create a genuine opening.
Such a thing did not occur until the 31st minute when McCabe broke past his man and Conor Powell found him with a ball down the left flank. But even on the break there was a sluggish quality to Rovers’ play and McCabe’s low ball to Brennan was curled well wide of goal.
Three minutes later Daryl Kavanagh created an even better chance when he slipped a first time ball through the visitor’s back-line for Ronan Finn who should have done better than to deliver his shot wide of both keeper and goal.
Shamrock Rovers and Ekranas in action - Image by George Kelly
Only in the dying minutes of the half did Rovers gather enough momentum to truly excite the home crowd as Finn and McCabe each found another gear. Finn bullied an opening down the left that Twigg ultimately failed to take advantage of and McCabe delivered a wicked cross that Zubas snatched off the Scottish striker’s forehead.
Ekranas, for their part, had created little; a couple of long distance efforts by Kucys that flew directly into the midriff of Oscar Jansson and a moment when Andjelkovic got on the end of a long throw only for Ken Oman to perform a brave and timely block. But they would have taken considerable encouragement from an opening period in which they felt more comfortable than they had a right to expect.
Rovers were more assertive in the second half, starting at a pace which suggested that words might have been had over the cup of tea. Finn showed great determination, four minutes in, to wrestle past Vertelis and chip a ball into the centre that was marginally too high for Twigg. Three minutes later Pat Sullivan got another testing ball in from right that found McCabe dead centre, six yards out. The smallest man on the pitch rose well but saw his header deflected wide.
Sullivan began to make hay down the right as Ekranas suddenly looked terribly vulnerable. His cross on 56 minutes forced Zubas into a panicked punch that somehow wound its way to safety, and one minute later he skinned Urdinov along the line but drove his low centre too close to the Lithuanian keeper.
After an hour’s play Ronan Finn almost provided an opening goal, making his own chance with committed harassment of a hesitant defender and a mazy run through several challenges before shooting powerfully, but straight at Zubas.
With half an hour to play Rovers were clearly the better team and with enough momentum to suggest the coming of a happy ending. But in the 67th minute the Lithuanian’s man of the match, Marko Andjelkovic, reminded all present that the game was still in the balance, running at the Rovers defence before thrashing a 20 yard shot that Jansson did well to tip around his right hand post.
As the final ten minutes approached Rovers looked to crank up the pressure and substitute Billy Dennehy threaded a ball in from the left that found Twigg all on his own six yards from goal. Remarkably, his touch was heavy and the arch predator saw a golden opportunity slip away. Moments later Finn smashed a shot past Zubas that spun away off the Ekranas crossbar.
With two minutes to play Dennehy fired in a cross from the left that eluded Twigg at the near post but was almost blasted home by Chris Turner as he charged in on a sleepy defender. One minute later Turner played a sublime ball through for Stephen O’Donnell, but the substitute pushed his close range effort wide.
But it was not to be Rovers night. Despite a poor first half they did enough to win this game and the tie, if it is to be won, mustnow be won on foreign soil.
Shamrock Rovers: Oscar Jansson; Pat Sullivan, Craig Sives, Ken Oman, Conor Powell; Gary McCabe (Chris Turner 73), Daryl Kavanagh (Billy Dennehy 69), Ronan Finn, Stephen Rice, Killian Brennan (Stephen O’Donnell 83); Gary Twigg.
Subs not used: Rayaad Pieterse, Colin Hawkins, Conor McCormack, Gary O’Neill.
Bookings: Oman (37).
FK Ekranas: Emilijus Zubas; Vytautus Luksa, Ignas Dedura, Mantas Samuslovas, Yani Urdinov; Egidijus Varnas, Giedrius Tomkevicius, Aurimas Kucys, Aurimas Vertelis; Marko Andjelkovic (Dovydas Morvilas 90+1), Zilvinas Kymantas.
Subs not used: Tadas Kauneckas , Dainius Gleveckas, EdvinasGirdvainis, Arnas Ribokas, Vitaijus Kavaliauskas, Tadas Markevicius.
Bookings: Andjelkovic (16), Vertelis (42), Urdinov (46).
Referee: Mattias Gestranius (Finland).
Extratime Man of the Match: Ronan Finn (Shamrock Rovers).