The stands will be empty in Tallaght Stadium on Thursday for the visit of who Stephen Bradley called “football royalty” and while the Hoops Head Coach acknowledged that it is unfortunate that there will be no supporters at their game against AC Milan (kick off 7pm), it is a game that everyone at the club is excited about – and one which he reckons his team will cause the visitors difficulties in.
“This is why you play football, for nights like this,” said Bradley. “To test yourself against the best and on Thursday we have a chance to do that, so it’s a really exciting game to look forward to.
“The only drawback from the occasion is that our fans won’t be there to witness it. This is what it’s about for our fans, big nights like this and it’s just unfortunate that they won’t be there (due to UEFA COVID-19 regulations).
“You have to believe you can win every game you go into. We know what we’re up against, we’re up against a top team but we believe that we can cause any team problems.”
In the week that marks a calendar year since Shamrock Rovers' last competitive defeat – 19 games ago and you have to go back to June 2019 for their last home loss – they face their biggest test to keep that record going when they welcome the seven time European Cup winners AC Milan to Tallaght.
“We know it’s going to be a difficult game obviously but we’ll go with a game plan to try and win the game like we always do,” said Bradley who has led the Hoops in six European home games - winning three, drawing one and losing two.
“We know there’s going to be times in the game when we’re up against it and we’re going to have to dig in. That’s only normal when you play a team of this quality but I honestly believe that we have enough quality to cause any team problems and create chances.”
“You have to understand the quality of player you’re up against, it’s going to be really high and there’s going to be periods in the game where you’re not going to have the ball.
"You’ve got to be comfortable with that and ready for that, and be ready to work and put in a shift. But there’s going to be patches in the game where we will get possession and chances and we’ve got to be ready to take them.”
It is ten years since Rovers last played a Serie A side in Europe when Juventus came to Tallaght in the same season that this week’s visitors AC Milan would win the last of their 18 Serie A titles.
Back in 2010, Juventus won 2-0 in Tallaght and 1-0 in monsoon like conditions in Modena - both Alan Mannus and Stephen Bradley played in that match. That season both Rovers and Milan (2010/11) won the league title - the last time both clubs did so.
For this match Milan manager Stefano Pioli is without Crotian striker Ante Rebic who is suspended – he got a five match ban for a red card playing for Eintracht Frankfurt against Strasburg last year – for what is Milan’s first competitive game of the season and their return to Europe after missing out last season due to financial difficulties.
"We're excited to start the new season and try to finish this road that would lead us to the Europa League,” said Pioli speaking to the media in Milan on Wednesday morning before they travelled to Dublin.
“European football is where a club as storied as this one belongs, we want to get back there.
"Our season begins with Shamrock Rovers. We know how tough these first matches can be: they've played more games and have more minutes in the legs. We'll need to be alert for 90 minutes."
Included in his squad is €10m signing Sandro Tonali, Daniel Maldini (son of club legend and Technical Director Paolo Maldini), along with Spanish under-21 international Brahim Diaz (who was with Manchester City with Jack Byrne and is currently on loan from Real Madrid).
It is a squad with ten full of internationals compared with Rovers' six.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic didn’t play in the last two friendlies but did travel with the squad as is expected to play.
"I'd have preferred it if Ibrahimovi? had played a bit more in the friendlies, but he's completely recovered and is always ready, motivated and competitive,” said Pioli.
“Tonali is young but he's mature and ready; he's happy to be here and has already shown us what he can do. In the last few days.”
The winner of this tie will be at home in the third qualifying round where they will play either Norwegian side Bodø/Glimt or Lithuanian team Žalgiris Vilnius next week. Milan kick off their Serie A campaign next week playing Bologna at the San Siro.
Referee: Adam Farkas (Hungary)
In domestic action, the Hoops have not conceded a goal in their last five games. Milan have played four pre-season friendlies and won them all.
There have been three ties between League of Ireland and Italian clubs. In addition to Rovers tie against Juve, Milan played against Athlone when Town missed a penalty in the scoreless first leg of their 1975/76 UEFA Cup and Limerick lost to Torino 5-0 on aggregate in the 1971/72 Cup winners cup.
Graham Burke’s goal in the last round was his fourth in Europe and moved him level in Rovers' all time European scorers with Billy Dixon and Liam Tuohy. Pico Lopes, who also scored against Ilves last month, is just one goal behind.
Shamrock Rovers 22/1; Draw 8/1; AC Milan 1/12.
2-1 away win
Injured: Rory Gaffney.
Doubtful: Sean Kavanagh
Suspended: Liam Scales.
Injured: Alessio Romagnoli, Matteo Musacchio, Rafael Leao
Suspended: Ante Rebic