Rovers look to continue Europa fairytale
Shamrock Rovers are Republic of Ireland's most successful club but on Thursday they enter uncharted waters for Irish clubs when they host Russian side Rubin Kazan in the opening matches of the UEFA Europa League group stages.
Rovers - winners of a record 16 national titles and 24 FAI Cups - have really been thrown into the deep end as aside from Rubin they also have English side Tottenham and Greek outfit PAOK Salonika in Group A. However, Rubin should hold no fears for the Irish side after they gained an unexpected but deserved win over Serbian giants Partizan Belgrade in the qualifying round last month.
Rovers, the first ever Irish side to make it into the group stages of a European competition, warmed up for Thursday's sellout clash with a 1-1 draw in a league match against St Patricks Athletic on Monday.
Manager Michael O'Neill acknowledges that the level will be substantially higher than the fare served up against St Pats. "Thursday is a totally different challenge against a top team but we've got ourselves into this position and we'll try to deal with it and do our best," O'Neill, who was capped 33 times by Northern Ireland, told herald.ie.
"The players have had no information on Kazan so far, they'll get their first taste of it today. We'll watch some videos of them and then look at how we will shape up against them. It's a case of trying to get as much information across to the players without overloading them. It's going into the unknown slightly."
O'Neill, whose only previous managerial experience was with Scottish side Brechin City, added that taking on a side packed with internationals was a daunting one given that his team have just the one - Jamaican goalkeeper Ryan Thompson who won his sole cap in 2004.
"It's a massive challenge, we're going in against top-class opposition riddled with international players, a big spending club," said the former midfielder, who numbers Dundee United, Hibernian and Newcastle United among his clubs. "It's a big challenge but it's great for us to get the chance. People talk about the financial aspect to it but we want to continue to do ourselves justice in that competition."
Redknapp's selection dilemma
Spurs travel to Greece but given the noises coming from manager Harry Redknapp there is none of the enthusiasm that surrounded their impressive debut in the UEFA Champions League last term. Redknapp's priority is Sunday's Premier League match with Liverpool which he says rules him out of taking the players who played in the 2-0 victory over Wolves last Saturday.
"The problem I've got on Thursday is I can't really take this lot who've played at Wolves," he said. "It is a nuisance. There won't be too many of these going to Greece."
Aside from that selection problem Redknapp will also have to smooth the ruffled feathers of Dutch star Rafael van der Vaart, who expressed his annoyance at not being included in the Europa League squad - which ruled him out of the group stages.
Celtic may have breathed a sigh of relief at getting a place in the group stages because of Sion's ejection over fielding ineligible players in their qualifying round match but that will have been tempered by the quality of their group opponents. First up the Scottish side - the only one remaining in European competition - travel to crack Spanish outfit Atletico Madrid while impressive Italian side Udinese host France's Rennes.
Celtic captain Scott Brown is not intimidated by the challenge the Hoops are facing and indeed is relishing the task in hand as nobody is expecting them to do much. "It's going to be a big game for us, especially going over there for the first game, but we will take it as it comes," said Brown, who is fighting to be fit as he has an ankle injury.
"We are going to take it as one of the biggest games of our season so far. We want to be in Europe and play in big in big matches - that's why we signed for a club like Celtic. It's a major occasion."
If fit Brown and his fellow defenders could face a tough night as despite the sales of Sergi Aguero and Diego Forlan to Manchester City and Inter Milan respectively they have the formidable presence of big summer buy Colombian striker Falcao up front. The 25-year-old struck a remarkable tournament record 17 goals last season as his then club Porto won the trophy and he will be looking to carry on from where he left off.