Macdara Ferris reports from Tallaght Stadium
Shamrock Rovers certainly gave a good account of themselves against one of the giants of world football but a goal in each half saw AC Milan through to the third qualifying round of the Europa League as the Hoops head for the European exit door.
A decade ago when Juventus came to Tallaght, the Shamrock Rovers fan display said ‘Facci Sognare’ – ‘make us dream’. This time around there were no fans in the stadium and the dream of one of the greatest upsets in Irish football died thanks to the quality of goalscorers Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Hakan Calhanoglu who shone on a strange night in an empty Tallaght Stadium.
The build-up to this behind closed doors game was all about Ibtrahimovic and so there wasn’t really a surprise when the opening goal came from a certain Swedish striker mid-way through the half for the visitors. He was the beneficiary of some strong Milan pressing on the Hoops enabling him to score.
Rovers had looked to pass around Milan’s high press throughout the game but Pico Lopes couldn’t clear his lines after Joey O’Brien and Ronan Finn had held the ball up. Theo Hernandez played the ball to Zlatan and his one two with Hakan Calhanoglu gave him the space to shoot with his right low to Alan Mannus’ right.
It was a deflating goal to concede as Rovers were well in the game up to that point even if they had rode their luck at times. Both before and after conceding a goal they did create chances. Indeed Aaron Greene had gone really close to scoring in the opening quarter of an hour. Jack Byrne played him through the Milan defence and his left foot shot was pushed away by Gianluigi Donnarumma to groans from the Rovers stewards, players in the stands and the vocal home ball retrievers.
A few minutes after the goal concession, Greene again forced a save from the Milan captain. This time the striker got himself on the ball on the end line and from an acute angle Donnarumma batted the ball behind for a corner. Byrne whipped it in and Lopes flashed a header wide as Rovers looked to exploit the odd set piece that came their way.
Calhanoglu and Byrne were the two linchpins for their respective teams. The Hoops seemed to have difficulty picking up the Milan number 10 in the space behind the Rossoneri’s front three. The visitors were happy to try their luck from distance but Calhanoglu and Ibrahimovic twice skied the ball over the bar into the empty south stand.
Just on half time, Rovers were nearly rewarded for a fine passing move. They were able to retain the ball and move it across the Milan back four. Neil Farrugia’s cross from the left came to Finn and the Hoops captain got his header on target but Donnarumma was able to reach over this head to claim.
The width of post prevented Milan getting their second early in the second half when Calhanoglu’s acrobatic effort looped over Mannus back off the woodwork. When the ball came to Davide Calabria he let fly and Mannus did well to turn the ball around the post for a corner.
It was becoming a battle between Calhanoglu and Mannus with the Hoops ‘keeper getting enough of a touch to take a Milan free kick from the Turkish player out of danger after Lopes was unlucky to be pinged for what looked like a strong but fair tackle on Ibrahimovic just before the hour mark.
For Rovers it was all about staying in the game and not conceding a second so that they could look to press on late in the game – maybe hoping to exploit the match fitness against a team that had only played four pre-season friendlies before this European tie.
However, Saelemaekers got sight of the full goal after he spun on the ball but he hit his low effort straight at Mannus as Milan began to really dominate possession. A goal was coming and it duely arrived from the stand out player on the night Calhanoglu on 67 minutes. The Turkish international let fly from the edge of the box and as the ball beat Mannus so went Rovers chances of pulling off a dramatic upset.
Greene did force another save from Donnarumma before he made way for Dean Williams but the shutout of League of Ireland sides against Italian clubs continues - seven games without a goal.
The drama of Rovers’ European adventure comes to an end but Europe will still be in Rovers’ mind for the next number of weeks. The Hoops need 14 points from their remaining seven league games to secure their 18th league title and passage into the lucrative Champions League qualifiers next year. Monday will be their chance to earn the first of those required points when they welcome Waterford to Tallaght Stadium.
Shamrock Rovers: Alan Mannus; Joey O’Brien, Roberto Lopes, Lee Grace; Ronan Finn ©, Gary O’Neill (Dylan Watts 70), Aaron McEneff, Neil Farrugia (Sean Kavanagh 83); Jack Byrne, Graham Burke; Aaron Greene (Dean Williams 88).
Subs not used: Leon Pohls (gk), Sean Callan, Rhys Marshall, Thomas Oluwa.
Booked: Lee Grace (51).
AC Milan: (4-2-3-1): Gianluigi Donnarumma ©; Davide Calabria, Simon Kjaer, Matteo Gabbia, Theo Hernandez; Franck Kessie, Ismael Bennacer (Sandro Tonali 84), Hakan Calhanoglu (Brahim Diaz 84); Samu Castillejo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Alexis Saelemaekers (Rade Krunic 74).
Subs not used: Ciprian Tatarusanu (gk), Diego Laxalt, Leonardo Campos Duarte Da Silva, Lorenzo Colombo.
Referee: Adam Farkas (Hungary).
Extratime.ie Player of the Match: Hakan Calhanoglu (AC Milan).