Shamrock Rovers 1 KF Teuta Durrës (Albania) 0
It took an injury-time rocket from Aidomo Emakhu to finally break the resolve of Teuta Durrës. The 17-year-old has had to bide his time behind Rory Gaffney but when finally called upon he smashed home a cross by Danny Mandroiu.
One chance, one goal, Emakhu turns 18 on October 26th. The English clubs will be waiting.
Teuta were fully intent on winning this two-legged affair on penalties. Their discipline was admirable, particularly centre half Hristijan Dragarski's shadow job on Gaffney, but not once did they display enough quality to morph into something else next week at the sweltering Niko Dovana stadium.
Nil-all was their stated aim. Rovers, despite being miles the better team, were lucky to avoid that reality.
The Albanians, as is their solemn right, came for a scoreless draw. Nothing more, nor less. They did not embark on a 10-hour round trip to educate the good people of Tallaght on the finer points of association football.
None of this surprised Rovers, with manager Stephen Bradley speaking pre-match about Teuta's grá for the "dark arts."
The League of Ireland flag bearers were going to have to rise above it all. Not for a lack of effort, but the headed winner off a corner never materialised. They needed the finishing instincts of a teenager to keep the Europa journey on track.
Stivi Frasheri, the visiting goalkeeper, was the first to collapse in agony. He had been in the wars, in fairness, what with catching all those angled balls Richie Towell and Mandroiu were dropping into his area.
Thankfully, he recovered to allow the emergency medical treatment to focus on Asion Daja, who miraculously rose up to scythed down Liam Scales before the Rovers wing back can put to paper at whichever British club offers €600,000 for his particular set of skills. Daja was yellow carded by Norwegian referee Kai Erik Steen, who had been hesitant to penalise the early spattering of old fashion tackles.
The 1,500 crowd, permitted inside the ground, lost all sense of Zen when Blagoja Kotonelli was sucked into the grass by a tractor beam. Nobody appeared to touch him.
When Tauljant Sulejmanov took a tumble and roll before the break, Steen had seen enough. Not enough to book him, but enough to wave play on.
The contest limped to half-time without either goalkeeper being seriously tested. Mandroiu was threatening to stamp his class on proceedings with two snap shots straight into Frasheri’s midriff. Besides Scales and Lee Grace missing the target with headers off set-piece deliveries, the delighted chants of the eleven-strong Teuta contingent in the west stand seemed warranted. A messy, unapologetic job was half done.
It peaked at 35 degrees in Durrës on Thursday. The Albanians know that pale-faced Irish will wilt next week. All they had to do was hang on and keep trying to cod the ref.
Rovers were so comfortable in possession that it quickly became obvious Teuta were happy to let them have it. Such a patient, probing approach can easily turn into an unsolvable puzzle, especially when three well organised defensive lines are convinced that the end game was to find Gaffney.
Rovers accepted the rules of engagement, refusing to change their system until Aaron Greene replaced Towell on 77 minutes, but pushing Joey O'Brien and their wing backs higher up the pitch, knowing this was precisely what Teuta needed to happen to unleash Sulejmanov with a ball over the top. They never really looked capable of stealing a goal.
Grace must still be wondering how his second header, from Towell’s corner, did not find the net. Frasheri’s black gloves swallowed the ball.
Next, Dylan Watts went down in the box but Mr Steen was perfectly placed to squat low and furiously shake his head to signal ‘no penalty’ in three languages.
Frasheri devoured a few more minutes by clutching his leg after the umpteenth Rovers corner came to nothing.
This prompted Bradley to change up for the last 20 minutes with Sean Kavanagh and Graham Burke arriving just as Frasheri pulled another hissy fit on the floor.
Emakhu arrived on 83 minutes to chisel out a late chance but Dragarski cut him down outside the box. No card. Nothing, and that’s exactly what Rovers were about to take from this game, until Emakhu delivered at the death.
Shamrock Rovers: Mannus; O'Brien, Lopes, Grace; Finn (Gannon 83), Watts, Towell, O'Neill, Scales; Mandrio, Gaffney (Emakhu 83).
KF Teuta: Frasheri; Todorovski, Dragarski, Arapi, Kotobelli; Daja, Karabeci; Vila, Kallaku (Gruda 69), Jackson; Sulejmanov (Georgiev 69)
Referee: Kristoffre Hagenes (Norway).