Ludogorets outgun Shamrock Rovers as gap in quality visible on chastening night

Second-half revival kept Ludogorets in check until injury-time strike put tie to bed

Ludogorets Razgrad 3 Shamrock Rovers 0

Out of their depth, with a school of sharks nipping at every limb, Shamrock Rovers fought tooth and nail to escape humiliation in Bulgaria.

Bravery almost prevailed in this glaring mismatch.

Following a tactical shift at half-time, when Ludogorets Afro-Brazilian attack was finally stared down by nine defenders, Stephen Bradley’s side were clinging on to a two-goal deficit after Pieros Sotiriou’s early brace, only for Igor Thiago’s sucker-punch in the 94th minute put an honest sheen on the result.


The scope of the task facing Rovers was evident inside four minutes. Bradley had packed the midfield with Richie Towell coming into the team to work his heart out alongside Dylan Watts. Pushing up alongside Rory Gaffney, they harried Bulgarian efforts to calmly pass out of defence. It forced a couple of switches in play, which proved enough to leave the Irish trio chasing shadows.

In stark contrast, Rovers centre half Pico Lopes had to abandon Rovers’ usual ability to hold possession. When Ludogorets pushed up, Lopes had no place to go but long.

Gaffney, so strong with his back to goal, initially transferred his domestic form to the Huvepharma Arena with a weaving dribble down the left but the striker took an extra touch when Towell’s lung-busting support run demanded a squared ball.

There has been plenty of rumours about Bernard Tekpetey forsaking Ludogorets before the season catches fire, with Dutch and Portuguese clubs have been looking to sign the Ghanaian winger. The reasons were obvious here. Tekpetey roamed from the left to right, turning the Rovers wing backs into full backs.

Ludogorets’ overall movement was mesmerising. Cauly zigged when Tekpetey zagged as Alex Santana had the ball on a string.

The first goal came from deep. The origin was Gaffney fouling Rick Jhonathan. Once again, Rovers shut down the right side so Ludogorets switched left as Santana cut inside and picked out Cauly whose back heel found Tekpetey moving right before Cicinho picked out Cauly for one of those Kevin De Bruyne-angled crosses that found Sotiriou.

The veteran Cypriot striker leapt over Seán Hoare to head past Alan Mannus from six yards.

Rovers kept going, staying true to their own style, but they faltered against a club that is propped up by billionaire Kiril Domuschiev. Whenever Lopes, Hoare or Lee Grace attempted to pass from defence they were rushed into error, as the wing backs became a liability by drifting up the pitch.

Watts, so impressive in recent weeks, was ineffective mainly because nobody could find him.

It was a painful reminder of Ireland’s standing in European football. They will probably drop into the Europa League qualifiers but this night makes it clear that the bottom rung, the Europea Conference League is where they belong – if even.

The second goal was the same as the first; Gaffney was unburdened of possession as play flowed into the Rovers half until Santana pulled the trigger with a looping pass for the overlapping Cicinho who found Cauly, who ghosted behind Gary O’Neill to create a turkey shoot.

Rick’s curler was shinned off the goal line by Grace but Sotiriou rifled home the rebound.

Ten minutes from half-time, with the wheels buckling on Rovers, Sotiriou was only denied his hat-trick by an offside flag.

“It is coming from all angles,” said Alan Cawley on RTÉ co-commentary. “They have played season after season in Europe. We are very much developmental in our league. We are nowhere near this level.

“When you have all them debates and arguments about the League of Ireland and where it is at – this is the evidence of how far behind we are in terms of trying to close the gap.”

On nights like this, the professional set-up Rovers have built, where they fast-track teenagers like Justin Ferizaj and utilise returning veterans like Towell, looks outdated. Not that any other Irish club has a superior blueprint but the simple facts are that Estonian, Slovakian and Bulgarian clubs look light-years beyond them.

Mannus acrobatically saved from Cauly to keep it 2-0 at the turn.

The inability to do the basics will grate on Bradley and his players. Stuff they do in their sleep, like holding ball off a throw-in, or Watts’s inability to clear the Ludogorets wall from a free, or Hoare scuffing a snap shot showed their inability to function under European pressure.

The Bulgarians response remained the same. One-touch passing out of danger before a switch of play cut Rovers open. A heavy defeat was avoided by the resilience of Towell, Lopes and others as the threat of being overrun arose on every counterattack.

Graham Burke came into the contest and almost stole a precious goal with a very speculative effort on 82 minutes before a late free-kick was deflected for a corner.

Suddenly Rovers had a piece of the contest. This woke Santana from his slumber with an injury-time shot needing to be parried by Mannus but, later still, Thiago was allowed hit a bobbling ball, after Grace failed to clear his lines, to slam the door shut on Rovers in the Champions League.

LUDOGORETS: Padt; Cicinho, Verdon, Plastun, Nedyalkov; Cauly Souza (Thiago, 89 mins), Santana, Cafumana; Rick (Delev, 78 mins), Sotiriou (Tissera, 89 mins), Tekpetey (Despodov, 70 mins).

SHAMROCK ROVERS: Mannus; Hoare, Lopes, Grace; Finn (Gannon, 76 mins), Watts (Burke, 61 mins), McCann, Towell (Kavanagh, 78 mins), O’Neill, Lyons; Gaffney.

Referee: João Pinheiro (Portugal).

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent