Stephen Bradley expressed pride in the performance of his players and detailed Italian legend Paolo Maldini’s praise following Shamrock Rovers’ creditable 2-0 defeat to AC Milan.
The Hoops’ Europa League ambitions are over for the season but they can take a lot of positives from a courageous footballing performance against a star-studded Milan side in Tallaght.
No less a figure (if there even is a lesser figure) than Zlatan Ibrahimovic put Milan in front midway through the first half before Turkish international Hakan Calhanoglu polished off the win late on.
Rovers had chances of their own, with Kilnamanagh man Aaron Greene forcing Italy keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma into three top-class saves, the best one early on that could have seen Rovers lead.
Despite the defeat, Bradley couldn’t contain his pride following a performance that saw the Hoops stick to their principles of playing from the back with risky, attacking football.
“I don’t think you can be too down after that. We showed tremendous courage to play our way and that was really pleasing,” the Jobstown native said.
“On another night if, Aaron Greene scored that first one, you never know what might happen so I’m really proud of how they attacked the game.
“We knew what we were up against in terms of quality, but we didn’t take a step back, we played our way and that was the most pleasing thing.
“In the end, it came to small margins as we lost the ball in dangerous areas and were punished. We didn’t take a step back and it has to be up there with the best we’ve played this season.
“It’s a massive learning curve for the team and it will stand to us.”
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Rovers were a massive 22/1 outside bet to upset the Italian aristocrats before kick-off – well short of the roughly 200/1 disparity in the clubs’ annual revenues – but 11 v 11 was far more competitive.
Greene forced Donnarumma into action early on following Jack Byrne’s brilliant through-ball and went one-on-one with the keeper through his own graft later in the half.
By then, the man, the myth, the ego, Zlatan, had broken the deadlock after Milan punished Rovers’ willingness to play themselves out of a tight situation in the corner.
Ronan Finn saw a header saved by the keeper late in the half, but the Hoops were rocked further when Calhanoglu finished spectacularly midway through the second half.
“Paolo Maldini and the coach came over and were really positive in how they spoke about how we played. They were full of compliments and it’s nice to hear.
“It’s very small margins at this level. We could have prevented the first goal but it’s split seconds and you’re punished.
“But we created three chances from football – it wasn’t kick and hope and something has dropped for us on the edge of the box.
“We created three really, really good chances against a top team. Against that quality of player and the intensity they play at, I thought the players were outstanding.”
Gary O’Neill added that Greene had won the race for Ibrahimovic’s jersey after collaring him on a corner – and the Swede presented the shirt to Greene’s son, a ball-boy and Rovers youth player.
“It was a lovely touch. When the set pieces were going up on the wall, who was marking Zlatan was the raffle! Greener was the lucky one.
“The back three were saying his strength, his size, his movement, his hold up play, it’s two or three steps above what we’re used to.
“Apparently he’s a really nice fella too. Look, he’s been at the top of the game since he was 18, he’s 38 and still at that level.
“He wasn’t alone: I thought the 10 [Hakan Calhanoglu] was unbelievable and the four [Ismael Bennacer] was different class. They are elite athletes and it’s great to pit our wits against them.”