In the year of the underdog, Lansdowne Road will be packed tonight hoping that Shelbourne FC can produce another surprise against Spain's RC Deportivo La Coruña in the first leg of the sides' UEFA Champions League third qualifying round tie.
Following FC Porto's Champions League triumph and Greece's UEFA EURO 2004™ success, the Irish champions - conquerors of Croatia's HNK Hajduk Split - are in buoyant mood as they sense another giant-killing. Such is the interest in the tie, the game has been moved across town from Shelbourne's 11,000-capacity Tolka Park stadium to the home of the national football and rugby teams, Lansdowne Road.
Shelbourne coach Pat Fenlon captured the mood of optimism when he said: "I think the tie is winnable. Deportivo are favourites but it's eleven against eleven and anything can happen in football. There have been a lot of shocks in football this year with Porto winning the Champions League and Greece winning EURO 2004, maybe this can be another one."
'Ahead of schedule'
However, Fenlon did add a cautionary note when he said: "We have to take stock and realise the amount of work that still has to go in so we can compete against the likes of Deportivo. But we're making progress and that's the main thing, to get to this stage on a regular basis and then try to go on from there. I think we're ahead of schedule.
"When I took over here as manager two years ago I don't think we were expected to make the third round of the Champions League, especially after my first game in Europe as manager, when we were knocked out of the Champions League by [Malta's] Hibernians FC." This time round, Shelbourne have come through difficult ties against KR Reykjavík - whom they overcame on away goals - and a Hajduk Split side they beat 4-3 on aggregate.
Shelbourne, who will again look to Alan Moore who has scored three goals in four Champions League games, are at full strength following the return of former Liverpool FC youngster Kevin Doherty after a six-week lay-off. Deportivo coach Javier Irureta, meanwhile, has Nourredine Naybet and Diego Tristán suspended, while midfield player Fran González is injured.
Perhaps influenced by the frenzy the game is causing in Dublin, Irureta was urging caution ahead of the match. "We can't afford to underestimate Shelbourne, there is simply too much at stake and we have already seen how more prestigious clubs like [AC] Parma have crashed out [in previous years]. We are putting everything into this tie and won't be approaching the games with a lackadaisical attitude."
Shelbourne are already into the second half of their domestic season, while the Primera División has yet to kick off and Deportivo's coach is aware that his side could be rusty. "If there's no unity between our players then we are in for a rough ride," he said. "We will be facing a side that are highly motivated because they are representing Irish football. They have an attractive style and the 4-5-1 system works well for them. They are going to be really fired up for this clash."
Goalkeeper José Francisco Molina is more confident, though. "I think we could be in for two tough matches," he said. "However, if we play our natural game then I think we should qualify without too many problems."
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