Belfast Telegraph

Shamrock Rovers hope to return with Europa windfall

By Daniel McDonnell

Greece is the last place to go looking for money right now, but that's the mission for Shamrock Rovers this evening.

Michael O'Neill's side may well be crowned league champions next Monday, yet the reality is that, in a financial sense, victory in this Europa League tie will be worth more to the club.

The prize for a win in the group stages of this competition is €140,000 (£122,000), with just €100,000 (£87,000) on offer for their efforts over a 36-game domestic season. A draw is worth €70,000 (£61,000) which is serious cash for the League of Ireland champions.

Realistically, the two meetings with PAOK Salonika offer the best chance of that windfall. With Tottenham Hotspur and Rubin Kazan the marquee clubs in this group, these are the games where the Hoops will feel they have a chance.

Don't confuse that with thinking this might be easy, however.

PAOK are favourites to win this game and rightly so. They have an established tradition of competing at this level and boast a side with a variety of nationalities and a fair sprinkling of internationals.

For the Greek title contenders, back-to-back games with the underdogs of this group present a viable opportunity to put them in a strong position to progress. For O'Neill and his team, this is another foray into a lion's den.

With a mood of public unrest sweeping the country due to unpopular austerity measures, the natives will be looking for some cheer.

More than 15,000 locals are expected to congregate in the Toumba Stadium to create an intense and intimidating atmosphere.

At least the Rovers players are well rested. Unlike previous group games, they've had a week to prepare. Nevertheless, they are under no illusions about the scale of the challenge, with defender Pat Sullivan tackling the perception that these encounters might be a softer touch.

“That's from the outside perspective,” stressed the Belgrade hero. “We've seen them play and we know they're not weak, so this will be very difficult in its own right.”

The good news for the visitors is that PAOK will send a depleted side into action. They are missing five players through injury, including their best player, Uruguayan international Pablo Garcia.

O'Neill dispatched Jim Magilton [the hot favourite to become the next Northern Ireland manager] and Andy Myler to watch their 0-0 draw with OFI Crete at the weekend. It was a fixture with a theme that is typical for PAOK at this moment in time. They enjoyed tons of possession without finding a cutting edge.

O'Neill is satisfied that his team are in good physical shape following a welcome recuperation period after last week's win over Derry which has put them in control of the league.

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