Shamrock Rovers have given themselves a mountain to climb in Finland next week after suffering a 2-0 defeat to RoPS Rovaniemi in Tallaght Stadium on Thursday night.
Goals in each half from Jarkko Lahdenmaki and Janne Saksela give the Finnish outfit a huge advantage ahead of the return leg in Keskuskentta next week. Rovers failed to really trouble RoPS 'keeper Antonio Reguero until they were already two goals behind and Pat Fenlon will have a major headache when he tries to plot a way back from this first leg defeat.
Gavin Brennan had the game's first shot inside 30 seconds, while Killian Brennan fouled Michal Mravec when challenging for a decent Simon Madden cross, but neither yielded a goal. At the other end, Rob Cornwall had to be alert to cut out a Saksela cross in the 16th minute. However, disaster struck for the hosts 11 minutes later when they conceded an away goal.
It came from giving RoPS a soft corner after a poor header back to Craig Hyland. The initial delivery from Saksela bounced in the box before being partially cleared. It only came out as far as Robert Taylor on the right corner of the area.
Taylor drove the ball right back into the crowded penalty area and it deflected off of Jarkko Lahdenmaki before flying past a bemused Hyland to give RoPS the lead. 1-0 down at home, Rovers were in dire trouble already. The Finns sought to capitalise on their stunned opponents, but Rovers won a corner in the 35th minute.
Killian Brennan took it and Pirinen cleared only as far as Patrick Cregg who put it straight back in. However, Sean Heaney couldn't direct his header and it flew well over. Four minutes later, Brennan won a free-kick just outside the area. The midfielder took it himself, but his shot lacked the power to really trouble Antonio Reguero in the RoPS goal.
In the 43rd minute, Rovers captain Stephen McPhail lived dangerously on the edge of his own box. Killian Brennan had blocked a fierce shot from Taylor before the Hoops skipper lost the ball. It was released by a teammate to Pirinen just outside the box and his shot was powerful but just didn't dip in time to test Hyland.
Rovers won two free-kicks early in the second-half as they sought to regain a foothold in the match, but neither came to anything. Gavin Brennan did have another sight of goal in the 50th minute, but his foot effort from the edge of the box flew over when he should have worked the 'keeper.
In the 55th minute, Gavin Brennan and lost the ball cheaply in midfield and Nganbe galloped clear down the left wing, but his cross was just too far for John. RoPS won a corner from the move, but it came to nothing. Brennan was hooked two minutes later.
His replacement, Dean Clarke, brought the first save out of Reguero with a snap shot from the edge of the box 60 seconds after coming on. Rovers won another free-kick outside the box on the right wing in the 59th minute and Brandon Miele's daisy-cutter cross into the six yard box required the sliding intervention of Pirinen to clear.
The Hoops were brighter after Clarke's introduction and won another free-kick in the 63rd minute. It was just over 30 yards out, but Miele opted to shoot. The former Newcastle United midfielder couldn't generate the power necessary and it landed in Reguero's arms.
Rovers had large spells of possession in the second-half but couldn't break down the Finns. And then, RoPS got a second goal in the 75th minute which could effectively kill this tie before the return in Finland next week.
Some excellent footwork from Kokko – the Finnish Premier Division's top scorer last season who was on as a substitute here – in the Rovers penalty area saw him take at least three Hoops defenders out of the equation before he teed up Saksela for a simple finish from the edge of the box.
The fact Rovers could be considered dead and buried seemed to wake up Fenlon's men. Firstly, Miele had a shot from the edge of the box which Reguero tipped onto the crossbar. Then Madden whipped a cross into the box which the 'keeper caught at his nearpost. Moments later, Clarke tested Reguero from distance again but he got down well to save.
It was to be of no avail as Rovers have given themselves possibly too much work to do.
Shamrock Rovers: Craig Hyland; Simon Madden, Rob Cornwall, Sean Heaney, David O'Connor; Gavin Brennan (Dean Clarke, 57), Killian Brennan (Gary McCabe, 76), Stephen McPhail (Sean Boyd, 87), Patrick Cregg, Brandon Miele; Gary Shaw.
Subs not used: Barry Murphy (GK), Maxime Blanchard, Trevor Clarke, David Webster.
RoPS Rovaniemi: Antonio Reguero; Jarkko Lahdenmaki, Abdou Jammeh, Juuso Hamalainen, Juha Pirinen; Janne Saksela, Mamut Saine (Mika Makitalo, 83), Michal Mravec, Jean Nganbe Nganbe (Eetu Muinonen, 70); Robert Taylor; William Oluremi John (Aleksandr Kokko, 68).
Subs not used: Tyler Back (GK), Ville Saxman, Akseli Kalermo, Aapo Heikkila.
Bookings: M Saine (39), M Mravec (62), JF Nganbe (64).
Referee: Georgios Kominis (Greece).
Attendance: 2,500 (est).
Extratime Man of the Match: Janne Saksela (RoPS Rovaniemi).