Shamrock Rovers 0 AC Milan 2
Zlatan Ibrahimovic took 23 minutes here to kill off whatever hopes the home side had that this might go down as another unforgettable Milanese misadventure in Ireland. Having missed out on the financial windfall they might have enjoyed, though, and been beaten comfortably enough, Shamrock Rovers at least earned the right to remember the night with pride.
It was, as their manager insisted afterwards, far more than plucky. His side had approached the game bravely and sought to play its own game. Having looked tired through the early stages of the second half, they worked their way back into it well and may well have been worth a goal. There was, in any case, no shame in coming up short against a Swede who has produced countless star turns on much grander stages than this and a supporting cast that included quite a bit of quality.
"I thought the lads were outstanding," said manager Stephen Bradley afterwards. "We've created three chances from football, it hasn't been a kick and a hope and something has dropped for us on the edge of the box. We have created three really, really good chances against a top team and when you consider the quality of the players and the intensity they play at, I thought we were outstanding.
“On another night,” he continued, “if Aaron [Greene] scored that first one, you’d never know what might happen. But we didn’t take a step back, we played our way and that was the most pleasing thing.”
Greene, to be fair, forced a couple of decent saves from Giunluigi Donnarumma but managed nothing like the ruthlessness displayed by one of the night's other outstanding talents, Hakan Canhanoglu, midway through the second half when he powered his shot through a crowded area and beyond Alan Mannus.
“I think the second goal has probably killed us,” acknowledged midfielder Gary O’Neill. “The message at half-time was to stay in the game, keep doing what we were doing. We were not too far off, we were creating chances. We should maybe have turned it but the second goal just killed us.”
Both before and after it Rovers were having to work pretty hard to keep pace with the opponents, although Dylan Watts was at the heart of a terrific move for Greene’s second chance with 18 minutes left to play.
The difference in quality was readily apparent for the most part, though. Milan played with an intensity that proved a constant challenge for their hosts. The Serie A side moved the ball with greater pace and precision when they had it and exerted more pressure when they didn’t.
The key problem early on was a familiar one for Irish sides against high calibre opponents, winning the ball was an effort-intensive business, giving it away again, all too easy, and it was almost half-time when Rovers put together an extended passing move that ended with an attempt on goal. Neil Farrugia’s cross, indeed, had real potential but Ronan Finn’s header was far too close to Donnarumma.
Jack Byrne did his best to push the home side forward and the Dubliner had his moments, most memorably when he set Greene up for his first attempt on goal. But his impact was limited by the lack of space afforded to team-mates further up the field while his own efforts to run with the ball at his feet were hampered by the difficulty he had getting away from 23 year-old Franck Kessié, an imposing midfield presence, who cost €24 million from Atalanta around the same time the Irishman was leaving Manchester City a few years back.
Rather more menacing from an attacking point of view was Ibrahimovic who, despite being nearly 39 and lacking match fitness seemed to keep himself absolutely central to the proceedings without actually moving about all that much.
“I think he was playing half-hearted,” observed O’Neill, his admiration clear. “It was a stroll in the park for him there tonight .The back three were just saying about his strength, his size, his movement, his hold-up play, everything. It’s just two or three steps above what we’re used to. Apparently he was a very nice fella as well.”
At times he looked like that guy who has turned up for the wrong five-a-side game but stuck around under sufferance. There were various expressions of disappointment with team-mates whose passes weren’t quite up to standard but, to be fair, he showed how it should be done quite a few times and his low finish to the bottom left corner for the opening goal hit the net before Mannus got to ground.
Rovers had conceded it after trying to play their way out of a tight corner. Joey O'Brien showed immense composure then and throughout the game but Roberto Lopes lost his for a split-second and though they had a bit to do the Italians were on their way. The defender made amends with a block later in the half that almost certainly prevented another goal and they did well, in truth, to prevent there being another couple.
SHAMROCK ROVERS: Mannus; O'Brien, Lopes, Grace; Finn, McEneff, Byrne, O'Neill (Watts, 70 mins), Farrugia (S Kavanagh, 83 mins); Greene (Williams, 88 mins), Burke.
AC MILAN: G Donnarumma; Calabria, Kjaer, Gabbia, Théo Hernandez; Kessie, Bennacer (Tonali, 84 mins); Castillejo, Calhanoglu (Diaz, 84 mins), Saelemaekers (Krunic, 74 mins); Ibrahimovic.
Referee: A Farkas (Hungary).