Europa League: Sheriff Tiraspol v Dundalk, Stadionul Sheriff, 7.0 Irish time
One month and three straight wins after his surprise appointment as manager of the League of Ireland champions, Filippo Giovagnoli dismisses the notion that results over the coming week might effectively decide whether he is still at Dundalk next season. Given that it took little more than that for the owners to tire of Vinny Perth after all that he achieved last season, though, the suggestion really doesn't seem so very far-fetched.
The league title may well be beyond saving already but beating Shamrock Rovers on Sunday evening would restore some sense that Stephen Bradley's side still actually have a race to win and would keep the defending champions firmly on course to qualify for Europe next year.
Before that, however, there is the current Europa League campaign to worry about. Sheriff Tiraspol represent a formidable hurdle to be cleared in Thursday’s third qualifying round but if the Irish side can somehow do it there will only be what would appear to be a more winnable home game against either KI Klaksvik or once mighty Dinamo Tbilisi this time next week standing between Giovagnoli and an unlikely debut in the competition’s group stages.
There are a fair few “ifs” in all of this, of course, most obviously in relation to the game against Sheriff (kick-off 7pm) but when it comes to defying expectations, the Italian is on something of a roll right now.
Sheriff have struggled to live up to their own Russian owners’ European expectations in recent years but they have made the group four times in just over a decade and the current side includes a fair sprinkling of full internationals drawn from some pretty far-flung locations.
At home, they are utterly dominant and their results in Europe have been better than Dundalk but respective rankings of 112 and 139 suggest they do not exactly inhabit different worlds.
“We’ve done a lot of research,” says Giovagnoli, “even individually for players, so we know what the challenge is and it’s a big challenge. Really big. These players have a lot of quality and are really skilful so we will need to be prepared. But we are excited and we’re going to perform tomorrow, trust me.”
They must do it without either Andy Boyle (suspended) or Dane Massey (thigh injury) and so the Italian must decide how to reshape his back four from last week's win in Andorra. A move from right back for Seán Hoare and a first start under the new manager for one of last season's standout performers, Seán Gannon, looks the most obvious solution.
With Pat McEleney and Pat Hoban both in contention again, Giovagnoli has developing options further up the field. David McMillan has scored two in three since the new manager took charge, though, and so Hoban might be seen as one of those best placed to make an impact from the bench but having scored in Andorra he is in better shape to start, it seems, than McEleney.
“If I’m listening to the people in Ireland,” says the manager, however, “they are players who can make the difference and I’m looking forward to seeing McEleney as soon as possible.”