Molde 3 Shamrock Rovers 0
Knowing this is the level where Shamrock Rovers crave to belong, there is a long way still to travel for the League of Ireland champions.
Maybe the bench offers sufficient evidence that Rovers are eyeing up the return meeting with Norway’s champions-elect at Tallaght stadium next Thursday. A deep squad is essential when fighting on two fronts, but Neil Farrugia, Jack Byrne and Rory Gaffney are the sort of players needed to retain the domestic title.
Shelbourne could feel the brunt of the backlash come Sunday.
Rovers manager Stephen Bradley was on the money pre-match; Molde, the early club of Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Erling Haaland, look like the strongest team in Europa Conference League Group F.
Not Gent of Belgium, nor Djurgardens of Sweden but the Norwegians’ languid, fluid approach, as harsh lessons continue to be meted out on the mean streets of European football’s basement tier.
The home fans stayed away and Molde’s top scorer Darto Fofana was suspended but it barely mattered. Backs to the wall, Rovers arrived with an ultra-cautious system, yet Ola Brynhildsen cut them open after just nine minutes. It was a familiar scenario for Bradley’s back three, quickly turning into a back five on the unforgiving pitches of Bulgaria, Hungary and Belgium already this season.
Magnus Grödem showed well to chest down the initial ball into the box but the Norway under-21 international was then allowed back-heel through five defenders for Brynhildsen to finish under Alan Mannus.
Teeming rain at the Aker stadium slowed further blushes as Molde initially struggled to find a second goal to secure three points in what has become a three-way fight to top Group F.
Mannus needed to push a shot by Martin Linnes out for a corner, which was another area of panic, but Molde had the ball on a string long before captain Magnus Wolff Eikrem entered the fray.
For Rovers, the show must go on. The focus switches to strangling Damien Duff’s Shels the same way the minnows of European club football have been punishing them and move clear of domestic challengers Derry City before Molde, Part II.
Bradley will also target the visit of Gent on October 27th as they attempt to make an impact on their return to the group stages after a 10-year hiatus.
Byrne never appeared but Gaffney did replace the injured Aidomo Emakhu earlier than expected and there was a welcome return for Pico Lopes after a long lay-off.
It wasn’t a night for the Rovers teenagers, Emakhu and Justin Ferizaj, who did bank valuable experience before what seems an inevitable move across to England or Europe. Wherever they land, it’s clear that the standard will be light years beyond their current patch.
The second goal ruined any hope of a second-half revival as, yet again, the back-pedalling Irish side allowed Kristian Eriksen thunder a shot off the crossbar before Brynhildsen jumped over Ronan Finn to head down the rebound.
Linnes was involved in the build-up to all three goals but they all looked avoidable as Mannus failed to control a deflected cross which fell for Etzaz Hussain who made no mistake with a sharp left-footed strike.
Last month Gent manager Hein Vanhaezebrouck could pay tribute to the possession-based ‘Shamrocks,’ after a ruthless 3-0 win, by comparing them to a mid-table Belgium outfit. If Molde manager Erling Moe played the same card, it would sound disingenuous. To be fair, he suggested nothing of the sort.
“Fortunately it was not a test of patience as we got the early goal,” said Moe. “There is a bit to fix, even if we won 3-0. We created great chances, but we were not skilled enough to take advantage of them. It’s good to have something work with too.”
MOLDE: Karlstrom; Breivik, Haugan, Risa, Lovik; Linnes (Bolly, 71 mins), Mannsverk (Kaasa, 71 mins), Hussain; Grodem (Wolff Eikrem, 71 mins), Brynhildsen, Eriksen.
SHAMROCK ROVERS: Mannus; Grace, Cleary, Hoare; Finn (Lopes, 68 mins), Kavanagh (Watts, 79 mins), O’Neill, Ferizaj (Farrugia, 68 mins), Lyons; Greene (Burke, 79 mins), Emakhu (Gaffney, 55 mins).
Referee: Miloš Milanović (Serbia).