Dave Donnelly reports from Tallaght Stadium
Big European nights are becoming something of a regular feature at Tallaght Stadium and it was another big win for Stephen Bradley’s side over heavily-fancied Apollon Limassol.
Rovers had to do it the hard way, battling back with goals in either half from Lee Grace and Roberto Lopes after Fotis Papoulis had fired the visitors into a fifth-minute lead.
Other Rovers sides may have crumbled as their pre-game optimism was so quickly burst but there’s a resilience about this side, buoyed by the once-again unplayable Jack Byrne, that allowed them to turn the tables.
Byrne was the provider for both the goals – the latter of which may have been an own goal from Esteban Sachetti, who was sent off for a disgraceful tackle on Byrne – and by far the game’s outstanding player.
How much longer he will remain in Tallaght is uncertain – there must certainly be a growing network of scouts keeping an eye on the former Manchester City – but he will leave an already-powerful legacy if and when he leaves.
The visitors had begun with an attacking intent not displayed by Rovers’ Norwegian opponents last week and had forced a save from Alan Mannus inside a minute.
Joey O’Brien was forced to concede a corner following good work by Yannis Gianniotas, and from the resulting corner Ioannis Pittas saw his overhead saved.
Jack Byrne was the hero in Tallaght seven days ago and he showed a glimpse of his vision with a through ball for Ethan Boyle but it was just a touch overhit.
And then came an example of the fine margins at this level, as the experienced European campaigners took full advantage of a moment of indecision.
A heavy Greg Bolger touch saw the ball bobble up in the air, Grace headed it as far as Papoulis and he sent the sweetest of half-volleys arrowing into the top corner.
To call it deserved would be an exaggeration but it was a fine return for their early energy on and off the ball, and they eased off somewhat in the following minutes.
Rovers began to get Byrne involved centrally and built up the pitch, while Apollon were content to go long and trust the awkward Emilio Zelaya to hold the ball up.
It was Byrne’s delivery, his third set-piece in as many minutes, that led to the equaliser after a quarter of an hour.
His outswinging corner was met with pace by defender Grace and his bullet header struck the post and was bundled behind by Dan Carr, with both players claiming it.
The concession didn’t spark an immediate reaction in Apollon but, slowly, they began to gain the upper hand in the game but Rovers restricted them to shots from distance.
Joao Pedro forced Mannus to tip over a rasping 30-yard drive and the Belfast man was on hand moments later to bat away Gianniotas’ effort from the edge of the box.
Apollon had the ball in the net again as Pedro’s volley took a deflection off Vincent Bessat and wrongfooted Mannus, but the defensive line had pushed up and it was ruled out for offside.
Carr forced Joel Mall to save from a tight angle as half-time approached, while the last action of the half saw Mannus deny Papoulis following Gianniotas’ run.
Byrne and Sasa Markovic – who played in Tallaght before on a 1-1 Europa League play-off for Partizan Belgrade – traded wayward free kicks early in the second half.
The Hoops playmaker’s radar was only off the once as he soon turned provider once more as Rovers took the lead just before the hour.
Byrne floated in an inswinging ball that Lopes looked second-favourite to make but the former Bohs man got across and glanced the ball towards the corner.
It appeared to last hit Sachetti on its way in, but Lopes is unlikely to want to see a second goal awarded to an opposition player after the first leg in Brann.
It could have got even better for Rovers as Boyle headed Byrne’s cross wide before another Byrne delivery was sent looping onto the top of the bar by Grace.
Substitute Aaron Greene broke the offside trap before rounding Mall but, having taken the ball too far wide, he couldn’t squeeze a difficult shot in.
Then Sachetti – who could have been sent off for an apparent elbow that left blood gushing from Aaron McEneff’s head – saw a straight red for a nasty two-footed challenge on Byrne.
The ten men did pen Rovers in for the final minutes, and Mannus was required to tip over Diego Aguirre’s dipping cross.
Stephen Bradley’s side he held out for a fully-merited win that sets things up nicely for Limassol next Thursday.
Shamrock Rovers: Alan Mannus; Joey O’Brien, Roberto Lopes, Lee Grace; Ethan Boyle, Greg Bolger, Jack Byrne, Aaron McEneff (Dylan Watts 84), Sean Kavanagh; Ronan Finn (Gary O’Neill 77), Daniel Carr (Aaron Greene 64).
Subs not used: Leon Pohls (gk), Sean Callan, Gary O’Neill, Dylan Watts, Thomas Oluwa, Aaron Greene, Graham Cummins.
Booked: Joey O’Brien (51), Sean Kavanagh (61).
Apollon Limassol: Joel Mall; Joao Pedro, Héctor Yuste, Attila Szalai, Vincent Bessat; Sasa Markovic, Esteban Sacheti, Ioannis Pittas (Serge Gakpé 61); Yannis Gianniotas, Fotis Papoulis (Diego Aguirre 72), Emilio Zelaya (Facundo Pereyra 81).
Subs not used: Demetris Demetriou (gk), Facundo Pereyra, Diego Aguirre, Chambos Kyriakou, Adrián Sardinero, Georgios Vasiliou.
Booked: Héctor Yuste (13), Emilio Zelaya (29), Estaban Sachetti (67).
Sent off: Esteban Sachetti (83).
Referee: Stephan Klossner (Switzerland).
Extratime.ie Player of the Match: Jack Byrne (Shamrock Rovers).