Shamrock Rovers’ tie against North Macedonia’s KF Shkupi offers the most realistic prospect of an Irish side coming out on top, according to former St Patrick’s Athletic league winner Conan Byrne.
The Hoops exited the Champions League after losing to Ludogorets 4-2 on aggregate last week but entered the Europa League at the third qualifying round stage where they met Skopje for a place in the play-off round.
Should Stephen Bradley’s side overcome the Macedonian champions, they will be one step away from reaching the lucrative Europa League group stages for the second time in Shamrock Rovers’ history and fourth time overall for an SSE Airtricity League club.
But they will also know that a play-off round defeat in that competition would still guarantee group stage qualification to UEFA’s third competition, the Europa Conference League, while a loss to Skopje would still enable them the fall-back of a play-off round in the latter competition.
Sligo Rovers and St Patrick’s Athletic impressed in reaching the Conference League third qualifying round but face tough tasks against Viking and CSKA Sofia respectively – the latter live on the RTÉ News Channel and RTÉ Player from 5.55pm on Thursday – and Byrne believes it’s Shamrock Rovers who have the best chance of the three clubs against their direct opponents.
“It’s a huge opportunity for Shamrock Rovers and I think out of the three sides this is the one we have a realistic aim of getting into the next round with,” he told this week’s RTÉ Soccer Podcast ahead of Thursday’s first leg at Tallaght Stadium.
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“Skopje have no league games played this season. Their season doesn’t start until next weekend, so it’s a huge advantage for Shamrock Rovers, with the experience that they’ve had this season and the game-time that they’ve had, to get through this tie.”
Skopje won their first North Macedonian title last season and this season is their fifth consecutive season in European competition, making them tricky opponents nonetheless.
“They defeated Lincoln Red Imps in the first qualifying round of the Champions League 3-2 and they won 3-0 at home and lost 2-0 away and then were defeated by Dinamo Zagreb which is a household name and a result that can” t be taken lightly,” said Byrne.
“They seem to be very experienced defensively and with Shamrock Rovers short of pace up front. That’s the area that I think Shamrock Rovers needed to improve on.
“They have (Rory) Gaffney who runs the line very, very well and does have pace but it’s just those wide areas that you’d like to have players running in behind and getting balls across the box.
“And with the fact that Skopje have an experienced back line, that’s the area I think Shamrock Rovers need to get behind.
“It’s going to be a fascinating tie but as I said, it’s the realistic one for me for an Irish team to get through and let’s hope it bodes well.”
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