Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

Europa League: Cliftonville keeper John Connolly knows the score as he chases shut-out

Easier said than done, but Cliftonville goalkeeper John Connolly knows that a clean sheet tomorrow night will see his team through to the Third Qualifying Round of the Europa League.

Connolly is the only Reds shot-stopper to have achieved such a feat on the continental stage, recording shut outs against FC Dinaburg in 2007 and then in last week's first leg showdown with HNK Cibalia — and is keeping his trusted fingers crossed that it's third time lucky.

“With any goalkeeper, you know that if you don't concede a goal then you won't get beat so there's not much difference in terms of how I would normally prepare for a game,” he said.

“Having said that, I obviously know the extra significance riding on this match and we're all expecting a bit of a bombardment, but it's a game we're all looking forward to. We worked hard to qualify for Europe and this is what it's all about, going out there and showing what we can do.”

Ciaran Caldwell's late goal at Windsor Park last Thursday night puts Cliftonville in the rare position of carrying a lead into tomorrow's tie, but Connolly, who set off for Croatia at 5am this morning, insists the Solitude outfit won't be playing for the scoreless draw which would see them through to a tie with CSKA Sofia

“When you're at home in a European game, one of your big tar

gets is not to concede. We've achieved that and now that we're away, we'll be looking to score. A goal won't guarantee anything, but it would make things doubly difficult for Cibalia,” he said.

“Make no mistake about it, though, they're a good side and had a lot of possession in the first leg.

“We expect that to be the case again out there and they'll come at us even more because their fans will demand it from the start.”

It's the visiting supporters, however, whom Connolly believes can make the difference. Some members of Cliftonville's Red Army have been travelling since Monday morning, while the majority will begin their treks to the remote city of Vinkovci today.

While most will start off from Belfast, their Scotland, Austria and Poland-based contingent are all plotting their own course, with a host of major — and not so major — European cities expected to act as halfway houses this evening ahead of the final push to north-east Croatia tomorrow.

“It's amazing the lengths they go to so they can support us,” adds Connolly.

“The boys really do appreciate the hassle our fans face to get to matches like this and the image when I walked onto the pitch in Latvia will stay with me forever.

“There we were at the other side of Europe, but the sheer amount of red and white on show shocked us a little bit to be honest — we were never expecting anything like that.

“In Croatia, they might find it a bit more difficult to make themselves heard because Cibalia's fans are going to make sure there's an intimidating atmosphere.

“So we might not be able to hear our fans, but there's no question we'll get that extra little boost when we see them and hopefully we can send them back home with smiles on their faces.”

l Pat Fenlon’s Bohemians exited the Champions League last night after a 4-0 defeat at Welsh champions TNS, 4-1 on aggregate.

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