Jesus saves Sofia’s blushes as European odyssey ends for St Patrick’s Athletic

Bulgarians progress after raucous affair ends with mass brawl and red cards for O’Reilly and De Nooijer

St Patrick’s Athletic 0 CSKA Sofia 2 (CSKA win 2-1 on aggregate)

Jesus saves Sofia’s blushes on a night of sizzling European drama. Goals from Mauricio Garcez De Jesus and Ivan Turitsov, 70 minutes apart, tore the life out of St Patrick’s Athletic’s unexpected surge towards the Europa Conference League.

So, CSKA Sofia progress to a playoff against Basel of Switzerland, to reach the group stages, as St Pat’s return to reality with a thump. Sligo Rovers visit Richmond Park on Sunday.

A Uefa investigation is guaranteed due to violent clashes after Horațiu Feșnic’s full-time whistle. The Romanian referee sprinted across the pitch, as did both dugouts baseball-style, to red card Bradley De Nooijer and Adam O’Reilly as chaos descended. Jamie Lennon and Chris Forrester appeared to have been struck during the melee while several bottles whizzed past De Nooijer’s head as he was rushed into the tunnel.

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You couldn’t make it up.

A tie-less Michael D Higgins magically appeared 10 minutes before kick-off. An Uachtarán na hÉireann was not the only supporter bringing some pizzazz to Tallaght. Brian Kerr was on-site early doors. “No European pedigree?” the former Republic of Ireland manager wondered aloud.

‘Patricks’ as they are increasingly known across the continent, played three rounds in the 2009 Uefa Cup before repeating the trick in the 2012 and 2013 Europa Leagues. This year’s rapid journey, from Slovenia to Bulgaria and back again, by hell or high water, almost superseded all that went before.

Almost.

The Dublin 8 ultras swelled the non-VIP stand, needing little encouragement “to be always singing” as they basked under a blazing August sun. Borrowing Shamrock Rovers patch for the night, the 6,760 crowd created a raucous occasion and, following an FAI warning, flares were replaced by gold glitter as the ‘Pride of Inchcore’ flags took the Luas out of town along with a massive ‘Invincibles’ banner.

Unfortunately, this was no red letter day, as CSKA only needed 10 minutes to square the tie. On a frenetic, adversarial evening, Garcez De Jesus nodded the goal off Thibaut Vion’s corner when Lennon was caught wrong side of the Brazilian’s timely run.

De Jesus almost had a second when Anto Breslin’s clearance was returned with interest by Turitsov. He sided-footed wide before Joseph Anang needed to make a tidy save from Colombia’s Brayan Moreno.

However, this was no parade of South American attackers. Billy King saw to that.

For what St Pat’s lacked beside the Bulgarians’ technical excellence, they made up for in structure and aggression. The silky skills of Forrester in tandem with Eoin Doyle proved essential, but the first real chance came from King’s through ball for O’Reilly. The Cork midfielder was denied by Gustavo Busatto rushing from the goalmouth to save with his legs.

The Pats revival was spearheaded by Joe Redmond, as the big centre half stayed up front following a free-kick, to bluntly regain possession before a poor cross morphed into a curling lob that required Busatto’s fingertip intervention.

Chances on goal dried up but the entertainment never waned as Tom Grivosti took a booking, one of 10, for slicing through Vion before Forrester’s mesmerising movement on the ball lifted the occasion above the norm.

Enter Serge Atakayi, the prince of Sofia. The Congolese native forced another low block by Busatto as St Pat’s bombarded the CSKA box for the last 20 minutes.

Breslin had the cleanest chance but the wing back’s weak first-time shot was straight at the Brazilian goalkeeper after Forrester’s perfect delivery.

Both misses proved costly as Harry Brockbank’s trailing arm denied De Jesus the chance to control and shoot with nine minutes remaining. Up stepped Turitsov to coolly bury the penalty into the bottom right corner of Anang’s net.

The focus instantly switches to Sunday’s direct battle to qualify for next year’s European adventure; St Pat’s at home to Sligo with a point separating them in the race for fourth as both clubs hope one from Derry City, Dundalk or Shamrock Rovers wins the FAI Cup.

Back to the grindstone as the Europa alchemy dissolves into regret.

ST PATRICK’S ATHLETIC: Anang; Brockbank (Owolabi, 82 mins), Grivosti, Redmond, Breslin; Cotter, O’Reilly, Forrester Lennon, King (Atakayi, 64 mins); Doyle.

CSKA SOFIA: Busatto; Turitsov, Mattheij, Koch, De Nooijer; Yomov (Shopov, 62 mins), Vion (Geferson, 71 mins), Lindseth (Tufegdzic, 71 mins), Youga, Garcez de Jesus; Moreno (Nazon, 62 mins).

Referee: Horațiu Feșnic (Romania).

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent