On Thursday, 19th of August, Shamrock Rovers will square off with Estonia side FC Flora Tallinn away from home, to begin a pair of UEFA Europa Conference League play-off ties.
The SSE Airtricity League Premier Division champions are on an exceptional, eight game unbeaten run in all competitions. Last losing to Slovan Bratislava in the opening leg of their first qualification clash in the Champions League.
Since then, they’ve been unstoppable, both domestically and in Europe.
Most recently, Stephen Bradley’s men safely navigated a difficult away game against Drogheda United, at Head in the Game Park. Winning the game 1-0, courtesy of a second-half Aaron Greene goal, after an excellent passage of build-up play.
The inaugural Europa Conference League has been kind to the ‘Hoops’, since dropping down from the Champions League.
The Dublin outfit handily beat Albanian side KF Teuta Durres 3-0 on aggregate. Realistically, it could’ve, and possibly should’ve been a more comprehensive score-line over the two legs, especially considering the dominant Rovers display in Tallaght Stadium during the home leg.
But what about their opponents? How does FC Flora Tallinn look ahead of this crucial European fixture?
FC Flora Tallinn
Like the League of Ireland, Estonia’s top tier league, Meistriliiga is well underway, due to the summer schedule the division operates on.
Flora currently find themselves in second, 12 points behind league leaders, and city rivals, Levadia Tallinn.
The very same Levadia Tallinn side that narrowly lost to Dundalk in the second qualification round for this very competition.
Despite the broad points gap, Flora has two games in hand to try and put pressure on their bitter enemies, as they look to win their third consecutive league title.
Disappointingly, Flora came out on the wrong side of a 1-0 defeat, against league strugglers Kuressaare, this past Saturday.
Saying that, the thirteen league titles the club has won in its relatively short 31-year history, makes them the most successful side since the inception of Estonia’s top-flight in 1992.
That domestic pedigree never truly translated itself when it came to their European exploits, in terms of reaching the group-stages of a major UEFA European competition.
Are Flora Flourishing In Europe?
Flora made their debut in Europe back in 1994, during the preliminary round of the UEFA Cup, getting hammered 6-0 by Danish club Odense Boldklub after two legs.
Since that, Flora Tallinn have consistently appeared in the qualification rounds for the Champions League and Europa League. Only missing out once, after unprecedently finishing outside of the Meistriliiga top three, in 2013.
Over that time frame, they’ve faced notable European sides like Club Brugge, Dinamo Zagreb, APOEL, Brondby, Basel and Eintracht Frankfurt.
This has been one of their lengthiest adventures in UEFA’s major tournaments.
As the Estonian league winners, they earned the right to represent themselves in the 2021/22 Champions League.
Tallinn comfortably dispatched of Hibernians of Malta in the first qualification round, with a 5-0 aggregate score-line. However, stiffer tasks lay ahead, and Poland’s Legia Warsaw were too much to handle.
They dropped down to the Europa League, and got drawn with Omonoia, from Cyprus. After losing the away tie 1-0, Flora overturned that deficit, and forced the tie into a penalty shoot-out.
Heartbreakingly, it wasn’t to be for Flora, as both Marco Lukka, and Sten Reinkort missed from the spot.
Now, an all-important date with Shamrock Rovers awaits, as the reigning rulers of Irish and Estonian football respectively, fight for a spot in the first ever Europa Conference League group stages.
Plus, the small matter of a €2,940,000 prize pot up for grabs, for the team lucky enough to qualify.
Rovers’ fans won’t need us to tell them that this isn’t the first time these two sides have met.
Back in the 2011/12 edition of the Champions League, these two were paired off during the second qualification round. With Rovers coming out the winners on that occasion, with a tight 1-0 aggregate result, thanks to a Chris Turner goal.
Striker Henrik Ojamaa may be familiar to the more hipster football fans amongst us.
The 30-year-old winger had spells in England and Scotland with the likes of Derby County, Motherwell, Swindon Town, and Dundee. Along with highly regarded clubs like Legia Warsaw. He’s also been capped at international level 44 times.
Sergei Zenjov may also be a known name to connoisseurs of English football. The 32-year-old attacker had a brief spell with Blackpool during the 2014/15 Championship season.
Despite that, Flora manager Jurgen Henn tends to incorporate a 4-2-3-1 formation, that can also revert to a flat five in the midfield.
Rauno Sappinen should lead the line going forward, being the club’s top goal-scorer this season, with the 25-year-old Estonia international netting 12 league goals so far, this season.
They also have the honour of owning the best defensive record in their league. Only conceding 12 goals during their 17 league games.
This has been an exciting year in the Europa Conference League for the Irish. With Rovers, Dundalk and Bohemians all having their individual moments of glory.
But it’s Shamrock Rovers that stand on the cusp of reaching another group-stage of a major European competition.
If they can get a positive result on Thursday, Tallaght Stadium will be full of 3,500 adoring fans waiting to witness history.
For those unable to attend, the away leg in the A. Le Coq Arena will be broadcasted live for free on Virgin Media Two, along with the Virgin Media Player. While the return leg in Tallaght will be aired on RTE 2, and the RTE Player.
Better late than never, bunch of bandwagoners suddenly interested in the league now the Olympics are over. Bit late folks.