Shamrock Rovers 2 – Slovan Bratislava 1
By Dave Donnelly
Stephen Bradley hailed ‘one of the best Irish performances’ ever as Shamrock Rovers bowed out the Champions League in controversial circumstances at Tallaght Stadium.
The Hoops ran out 2-1 winners over Slovan Bratislava, thanks to goals from Graham Burke and Richie Towell, but it wasn’t quite enough to overturn a 2-0 deficit from the first leg in Slovakia.
That doesn’t quite tell the whole story, however, as the hosts were 2-0 up with 20 minutes to go and headed for extra-time at the least when the visitors scored a contentious goal.
Defender Roberto Lopes, who marked the milestone of his 150th time Rovers game, was tripped by Brazilian striker Rafael Ratao as he covered a routine ball over the top.
The referee waved play on, to the shock and ire of the 1,500 spectators, and played in Slovakian international Vladimir Weiss to net what would be the decisive goal.
Bradley revealed that the fourth official had signalled to his colleague that Lopes had been fouled, but the Croat official stuck with his original decision and the goal stood.
Rovers outplayed the Slovak champions and, despite the concession, had chances to force extra time as Ronan Finn, Liam Scales and Lee Grace all went close, but to no avail.
“It’s a definite foul – we get done by a really really poor decision, an awful decision that cost us,” a bowed but defiant Bradley said following an emotional 90 minutes.
“The fourth official is saying foul because he sees the forward push him but the ref doesn’t listen to him. For such a big decision, it’s an awful decision.
“If you get done by a bit of play by the front players with a bit of quality, sometimes you have to take it. But they were done – physically [Slovan] were done. There is only one team going to win it then.
“The performance that the players gave has to be up there with one of the best Irish performances because we were playing a team who are a really high level. We kept them really quiet, created a lot of chances. Ultimately we got done by a terrible decision.”
The League of Ireland champions have struggled for consistency this season, not least in the opening leg last Wednesday, but they put in a performance to match last season’s against AC Milan.
Captain Ronan Finn was magnificent as he was restored to the right wing-back role, as was Liam Scales on the opposite flank, while Rory Gaffney put in a tireless shift up top.
Rovers pulled a goal back after just 15 minutes as Burke was scythed down in the box by Slovan captain Vasil Bozhikov, and he sent keeper Adrián Chovan the wrong way from 12 yards.
The home side rode their luck in the first half, but they pushed on a gear in the second half and they pulled level in the tie just past the hour as Towell netted his first Rovers goal.
Former Dundalk man Towell, who joined from Salford City earlier this month, was picked out in space and sent a rocket into the top corner from 20 yards.
Slovan looked a beaten team at that point, and Slovan looked hopeful to hang on for extra-time, until the game turned on a decision that will be talked about in Tallaght for years to come.
PHOTO CAPTION – Graham Burke of Shamrock Rovers and team-mate Ronan Finn during the UEFA Champions League first qualifying round second leg match between Shamrock Rovers and Slovan Bratislava at Tallaght Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile