Rovers' focus turns to Rubin
MICHAEL O'NEILL believes that his Shamrock Rovers side are now ready for the rigours of the Europa League group phase after parking their domestic ambitions last night with a draw away to St Patrick's Athletic.
It's goodbye Richmond Park and hello to Rubin Kazan as Rovers can focus on their European dream after trading a few blows in the domestic title race.
Derry City remain on top of the table, but only just, as they came from behind to snatch a point at home to struggling Drogheda United, while Sligo Rovers move into second place on goal difference.
At Richmond Park last night some curious spectators, including the manager of the Faroe Islands national team, Brian Kerr, and Minister for Sport, Leo Varadkar (on a rare trip to a League of Ireland ground), were treated to a thrilling Dublin derby which could have gone either way.
Rovers took the lead with a Stephen O'Donnell goal on 19 minutes, should have scored more, and held that lead for 50 minutes before substitute Danny North equalised for a Pats side who could have won the match late on.
A fair result perhaps with relief for both teams -- because Pats are not out of contention for the league by any means -- that Derry dropped points, but for Rovers from now on it's all about Europe, though last night's action was significant in that Hoops midfielder Conor McCormack made a return from injury and is in the frame to face Rubin at Tallaght Stadium.
"Thursday is a totally different challenge against a top team but we've got ourselves into this position and we'll try to deal with it and do our best," said O'Neill, who delayed the prep work for his players on the Kazan tie so they could focus on that crucial league tie.
"The players have had no information on Kazan so far, they'll get their first taste of it today. We'll watch some video of them and then look at how we will shape up against them.
"It's a case of trying to get as much information across to the players without overloading them. It's going into the unknown slightly.
"It's a massive challenge, we're going in against top-class opposition riddled with international players, a big spending club. It's a big challenge but it's great for us to get the chance.
"People talk about the financial aspect to it but we want to continue to do ourselves justice in that competition.
"We left Stephen Rice and Chris Turner out for last night and they'll come back into contention for Thursday and it was great to see Conor McCormack back, looking like he'd never been away.
"Conor is just one of those players, you just ask him if he's ready to play and he'd say 'yeah'. The great thing about Conor is that he just gets on with it, there's no fuss, he's worked extremely hard to get back ahead of schedule.
Of last night's game, O'Neill added: "We're disappointed with the draw because we were ahead, we had chances to win it but so did they. It was a great game, end to end stuff, I feared that the conditions would make it a poor game but it wasn't like that at all.
"We'll only know later in the season if that was a good point or not. It's going to be tight, we always knew that this weekend would be difficult -- Sligo at home and Pats away was always going to be tough while juggling the FAI Cup and the European games, but we just have to focus on winning what's left for us."
For Pats, the result leaves them still in fourth place in the table, but also in with a shout as the Saints are just five points off top spot. Only a few weeks ago, their manager Pete Mahon had effectively conceded defeat in the title race but now Pats are very much in contention.
"I think I said that after the Bohs game, when we drew with them and they only had nine men, that we'd blown our chance, but we're still there," said Mahon.