The stars may be aligning for Shamrock Rovers to defeat Milan but the club are playing down the prospect of history unfolding in their Dublin stadium on Thursday night. The League of Ireland Premier Division leaders insist they are free to enjoy the Europa League match while the visitors carry all the burden of expectation.
“I think all the pressure is on AC Milan,” said Graham Burke, a forward on loan to Rovers from Preston. “For us it’s a game to relish, it’s an unbelievable occasion. We just want to enjoy it because you may never get it again in your life.”
It promises to be a strange, memorable night, with the Serie A giants hosted in the Tallaght Stadium, a spectacle to electrify Irish fans, yet not one of them in the 8,000-capacity venue, in accordance with coronavirus restrictions. The national broadcaster, RTE, will televise the game live.
Whoever wins the second qualifying round tie will face Norway’s Bodø/Glimt or Lithuania’s Zalgiris.
Victory for the visitors should be foretold. The seven-times European champions are not the phenomenally gifted team of the past but they are still football aristocrats and have Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who despite an injury concern is expected to play.
League of Ireland teams seldom trouble continental opponents at this level. The gulf in talent and resources can be cruel. This time, however, there is a faint glow of hope. Milan are rusty – this will be their first competitive game of the campaign. And they are hobbled by injuries.
Rovers, meanwhile, are match fit and on a roll: unbeaten this season in 11 matches, a record that has yielded an eight-point lead at the top of the League of Ireland table. They advanced in the Europa League after a marathon 12-11 penalty shootout win over Finland’s Ilves Tampere.
Paolo Maldini, Milan’s technical director, has expressed concern. “It’s a game that scares us a lot,” he told Sky Italia. “They are a team that is doing well, first in their league, and we have some [injury] problems.”
A one-off game, home advantage, opponents still in pre-season made, of this are upsets made. But Burke, who has played for the Republic of Ireland and is Rovers’ best chance of scoring, was happy to dampen the dream. “These are going to be the best players that we have ever played against and the best players who have graced the Tallaght football pitch. There are so many options that they have and one of the greatest strikers to ever play football is playing up front. You’re up against players who are worth millions and millions and millions of pounds.”
Rovers tend to dominate possession against domestic opponents but Burke expects to fight for scraps against Milan. “We may get just once chance.”
Paddy Power rates the hosts’ odds of victory at 22-1, which seems to suit Burke just fine. “If we do win, it’s going to be the biggest upset in Irish football history.”
When pressed the Rovers manager, Stephen Bradley, conceded that the club’s compact stadium in west Dublin, flanked by a funeral home and overlooked by mountains, just might be the scene of a famous victory. “We’re bringing football royalty to Tallaght but once the whistle blows it’s just another game. We believe we can cause some problems.”