St Patrick's fail to hit elusive target


EUROPA LEAGUE - St Patrick's Athletic 1 (O'Connor 49)  Steaua Bucharest 2 (Nicolita 80, Ochirosii 89) :THEY CAN scarcely question which was the better side over the two legs of this Europa League play-off but St Patrick’s Athletic did claim, with some justification afterwards, that last night’s defeat at the RDS was a little harsh on them given the levels of effort and energy they expended in pursuit of what always looked to be an elusive target on this sort of stage.

In the end they gave their fans something to cheer about shortly after half-time when Garreth O’Connor narrowed the gap to two goals but having narrowly missed out on a second a few minutes later when an Alan Cawley free hit the woodwork, the Irish side self-destructed in the closing stages as defensive mistakes were made while looking to attack handed goals to Banel Nicolita and Razvan Ochirosii. The victory for the visitors sent the large and rather excitable crowd of locally-based Steaua supporters home happy.

That the Steaua chief executive was booked on an early flight out of Dublin this morning in order to make the draw was probably to be expected but the scale of the visiting side’s confidence became apparent shortly before kick-off when Italian coach Cristian Bergodi named a side that included seven changes from the one that cruised to victory in Bucharest a week

Jeff Kenna, on the other hand, made just two changes to his starting line-up, although clearly the team had been picked with a more attacking approach in mind and the players’ appetite for implementing the game-plan was obvious from the start even if Steaua appeared to come with the intention of matching fire with fire.

The pace of the game from the outset was remarkable with both teams throwing themselves into attack with abandon. Where the real difference between the two sides lay was the quality of scoring opportunity they produced with the Dubliners managing only one of real note over the course of the first half, a few more in the second while the Romanians managed quite a few which had the home support on the edge of their seats.

Ryan Guy missed his side’s best chance of the first half eight minutes before the break after doing well to win the ball in the first place. Generally, the home side’s approach work was composed but with less end product as, once inside the final third, they found it hard to find space into which to move the ball.

The speed of movement and accuracy, even on a blustery evening in Ballsbridge, of the visitors proved a major problem for the locals, on the other hand, and young Enda Stevens looked, as he had last week, especially vulnerable at left back until replaced by Darragh Ryan at the break.

The 19-year-old had struggled to cope with Janos Szekely, repeatedly giving his opponent too much space in which to work. More than once, Kenna’s men might have conceded but Gary Rogers made a couple of good stops while Szekely narrowly missed the target with what was probably his best chance, a rushed volley after the goalkeeper had parried a shot by Rafal Grzelak.

Despite the relentlessness of the action, Bergodi must have been pleased enough when his side made it to half-time with their three-goal cushion intact but the Italian and his side received a jolt not long afterwards when Guy nicked possession down the right-hand side of the box and, keeping his head admirably, ran towards the near post before crossing low for Garreth O’Connor to side-foot home from just short of the far one.

The Dubliners now had 41 minutes to strike twice more if they were going to force extra-time and within five they came within a whisker of getting a second when Cawley’s curling free from 25 yards clipped the inside of the right-hand angle and bobbled across the goalmouth before being scrambled behind for a corner.

Had their advantage been narrowed at that point to a solitary goal it is easy to imagine that the Romanians might have reacted by going straight to panic stations but instead they made the most of the let off although only after their coach had thrown on a couple of last week’s stronger performers from the bench.

Perhaps the strongest of the lot, Banel Nicolita, got the goal that effectively killed the tie off nine minutes from time after Guy attempted a back pass and Rogers dropped back when he really should have come.

That the Romanians then grabbed a last-minute winner was particularly harsh on a home side who had continued to battle through the closing stages.

Kroum Bibishkov played a nice through ball on the turn for Romeo Surdu to run on to and though there was a fair hint of offside about it, he squared the ball for fellow substitute Razvan Ochirosii to slot home from 10 yards.

“I know it might only have been a moral victory, given how many changes their manager made from the team played last week, but I thought we deserved a little bit more,” said Kenna afterwards.

“We worked extremely hard and played some very good football. We matched them all over the pitch and if Cawley’s free had gone in then it was really game on. In the end, it didn’t quite happen for us but I’m still very proud of my players and all they’ve done over the last few weeks.”

ST PATRICK’S ATHLETIC:Rogers; Lynch, Harris (Gavin, 85 mins), Partridge, Stevens (D Ryan, half-time); Guy, Byrne (Dempsey, 79 mins), Cawley, O’Connor; O’Brien, Quigley.

STEAUA BUCHAREST:Zapata; Golanski, Tudose, Ghionea, Ninu; Szekely (Ochirosii, 86 mins), Onicas, Ionescu, Grzelak (Nicolita, 57 mins); Stancu (Surdu, 79 mins), Bibishkov.

Referee:Jiri Jech (Czech Republic).