Shamrock Rovers hoping to catch AC Milan cold in one-off Tallaght clash
Europa tie is Rossoneri's first competitive game of the season
AC Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic will provide Shamrock Rovers with a huge challenge on Thursday night. Photograph: Marco Luzzani/Getty Images
Milan not being quite the power they once were might not be enough for Shamrock Rovers in Tallaght on Thursday evening but there is a sense from both camps that the one-off nature of the tie, combined with the fact that it marks the start of Italian side’s competitive season, means that nothing here can be taken entirely for granted.
“It never goes the way it is meant to go on paper,” is the way Jack Byrne puts it. And though it very often actually does, it certainly goes some other way enough of the time for the home side to retain some hope of progressing.
The gap between the two clubs, though, leaves little doubt about who should be regarded as favourites. Seven times champions of Europe, 18 times winners of Serie A, the Rossoneri (Red and Blacks) may have been left behind a little both home and abroad over the past decade but their current squad cost over a quarter of a billion euro to assemble. To suggest that the Rovers one cost a fraction of that would be technically accurate and yet somehow still very misleading.
Worse, the figure doesn’t account for the fact that goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma is one of several first-team regulars to have come through the youth system and Zlatan Ibrahimovic arrived on a free. Even as the Swede approaches his 39th birthday, he probably reckons he is worth half as much again.
“There are so many you can go on about,” admits home team manager Stephen Bradley, who jokes that Rovers have requested Milan wear their traditional home strip “just for the Bohs effect”.
“The two full backs play like wingers,” he continues. The sitting midfielder has a left foot that can pick a pass from 60 yards. The wingers play really high, and run inside. They’ve so much quality. The right centre back passes like a central midfielder.
“But that’s what you’re up against when you go up the levels. You’ve got to be switched on for the quality they bring. We’ve got to be ready to try and hurt them with our own qualities. We know it’s going to be difficult. We know they’ve some really talented players . . . a top team, we know all that. But we feel we can cause any team problems, going forward.”
Both managers have a suspension (Liam Scales and Ante Rebic) and injuries (Rory Gaffney for Rovers; Rafael Leao, Mateo Musacchio and Alession Romagnoli for the visitors) to contend with and both acknowledge that that the competitive game time the home side has in its legs might make a meaningful difference. Bradley’s men will have to ensure that it does if they are to have any chances, realistically, especially as they will have no home crowd there to help them on.
“It will definitely stand to us [but] fitness will only take you so far,” he says.
In one way, the game is something of a distraction from the business of tying Italian international Donnarumma down to a deal that runs beyond next summer as well signing Tiemoue Bakayoko from Chelsea before Serie A gets under way. But being in the group stage of the Europa League might just have been assumed in the club budget as being used to achieve both aims and there was talk of Pioli being replaced last season only for a very strong run-in to earn him a new contract.
Crying about his players being ring-rusty won’t undo the damage to his prospects of seeing out the new deal if things go badly because for all the talk about Milan’s draw in Athlone, an Irish side has never actually scored against an Italian one in European competition, much less sent one packing.
For Byrne, there is also pressure of sorts going into a game like this but, he says as he breaks out laughing after suddenly spotting a betting firm’s banner in which he features prominently: “It’s a good thing to have and if those signs weren’t up there, if they were about someone else, I would probably be thinking it should be about me. I want that pressure but that’s not to think I have to go out there and score a hat-trick against AC Milan. Football doesn’t work like that.
“I don’t think I should be thinking that I have to run the show against AC Milan to get into the international squad. It’s probably not being realistic, let’s be honest about it. I know I just need to do my own stuff and keep trying to play well.”
“I played with Brahim, yeah. I think I kept him out of the squad there for a few years,” he says, laughing again. “He is a couple of years younger than me; I think he’s Phil Foden’s age group.
“The two of them trained with the reserves and you could see he was going to be a good player. He’s obviously got his move to Real Madrid so he’s not doing too bad, and now he’s at AC Milan. I’m looking forward to seeing him and having a chat with him as he’s a nice kid.”