Macdara Ferris reports from Tallaght Stadium
Champions Shamrock Rovers sent out a clear sign of intent of their desire to retain their title by beating second placed St Patrick’s Athletic 3-1 with a strong performance on Friday night. The victory - thanks to goals from Danny Mandroiu either side of a Pico Lopes header - moved them three points clear at the top of table with a game in hand over the Saints.
It was a tight enough affair in the first half which was unsurprising since the two teams came into the game level on points with only a gap of two in goal difference.
Both sides looked to hold onto the ball in the opening 45, refraining from giving it away too cheaply and letting the ball zip off the wet surface which had been subjected to heavy rain prior to kick off and during a ten minute spell in the opening half. While the football was good there was a distinct lack of first half goal mouth action.
Stephen O’Donnell deployed his skipper Robbie Benson in the centre of a front three and he had the first chance of the game inside three minutes. He had more time but ended up blasting the ball into the south stand behind Alan Mannus goal much to the delight of the home fans in the 1,500 capacity Covid-19 capped attendance.
Rovers’ first attempt on goal didn’t come till the 26th minute after Pico Lopes stepped forward from the Hoops three man defence. He linked with Rory Gaffney but when Richie Towell took the ball on he slipped as he shot causing the ball to drift wide.
The breakthrough came four minutes later when Lee Grace drilled a pin point pass low up the middle to Dylan Watts that sent the Saints defence back peddling. Watts held onto the pass before slotting in Danny Mandroiu who whipped the ball into the back of the net.
Towell almost doubled the lead in the next move but he couldn’t quite get high enough to direct his header on target. An easier header was the one Danny Mandroiu had off Ronan Finn’s cross but his effort just dropped wide of Vitezslav Jaros’ goal.
Brilliant defending by Jason McClelland stopped what looked like a certain Rovers goal on 36 minutes. He tracked Ronan Finn's run and was well positioned to stop Towell's low lateral cross from reaching the Rovers skipper who looked set to tap the ball home.
The home side couldn’t take that lead into the break though as Joey O’Brien conceded a contested free kick as Derek Tomney reckoned he fouled the back peddling Billy King. From 35 yards out John Mountney benefited from a bit of Rovers confusion with the wall. Mannus and Dylan Watts, who was facing his own goal, were still trying to line up the defensive wall when Mountney shot and it clipped the back of Watts to beat Mannus as he was moving across from his own right hand post.
The Hoops started the second half brighter and only a brilliant Sam Bone block stopped Gaffney getting his shot on the target from the edge of the six yard box. Rovers were dominating possession and that paid off on the hour mark after Bone had deflected the ball behind his own goal line for a corner. Watts whipped in the resulting set piece and Lopes leapt highest to head the ball beyond Jaros for his first goal of 2021.
The home side continued to pile on the pressure going close through Gaffney off a one-two with Liam Scales and then a Gaffney header. At the other end Darragh Burns almost curled his shot in when he cut in from the right but it hadn’t enough bend to beat Mannus.
Watts then provided his third assist for the home side as he sent Mandroiu through on goal who clipped it over Jaros for his sixth of the season on 71 minutes.
The Hoops now go into next Thursday’s Europa Conference League qualifier against Albanian side Teata full of confidence and having put a dent in the chances of the Saints taking the league trophy away from Tallaght.
Shamrock Rovers: Alan Mannus; Joey O'Brien, Roberto Lopes, Lee Grace (Sean Kavanagh 75); Ronan Finn (c) (Sean Gannon 78), Gary O'Neill, Liam Scales, Richie Towell, Dylan Watts (Sean Hoare 83); Daniel Mandroiu (Aaron Greene 83), Rory Gaffney.
Subs not used: Leon Pohls, Dean McMenamy, Max Murphy, Aidomo Emakhu, Conan Noonan.
Booked: Lee Grace (42).
St. Patrick's Athletic: Vitezslav Jaros; Sam Bone (Kyrian Nwoko 87), Paddy Barrett (Rónán Coughlan 58), Lee Desmond; John Mountney, Chris Forrester, Alfie Lewis (Nahum Melvin-Lambert 76), Jason McClelland; Darragh Burns, Robbie Benson, Billy King (Ben McCormack 76),
Subs not used: Barry Murphy, Josh Keeley, Ian Bermingham, James Abankwah, Jamie Lennon.
Booked: Paddy Barrett (43) .
Referee: Derek Tomney .
extratime.com Player of the Match: Danny Mandroiu (Shamrock Rovers).