TUESDAY NIGHT: Champions League first qualifying round first leg:
Cork City v Legia Warsaw, Turner’s Cross, 7.45pm.
IT hardly needs to be said that Cork City could do without going into tonight’s tie on the back of their worst form of the season to date.
Last Friday’s scoreless draw with Shamrock Rovers was the first time this season they had failed to win at home and it followed the 2-1 defeat at title rivals Dundalk. Not since their grind towards the Premier Division victory last term had they failed to win two straight league games.
Obviously, City haven’t become a bad team in an instant there are mitigating factors. But for an injury-time own goal against Dundalk and a missed penalty last Friday, they would still be top of the table and would be taking a nine-game unbeaten run into tonight’s game against Poland’s premier team.
Obviously, that isn’t the case and, no matter what the situation would have been, City’s status as huge underdogs isn’t in question.
Legia are the biggest club in their home country, winning five of the last six titles including three in a row. When they re-signed Polish U21 international Mateusz Wieteska from Gornik Zabrze recently, the announcement on their website merely informed readers that he had returned to the club. It didn’t matter where from, as everyone else is considered inferior.
Defenders Artur Jedrzejczyk and Michal Pazdan were in the Poland squad for the World Cup, while midfielders Krzysztof Mączyński and Sebastian Szymański were in the extended panel. Incidentally, one wonders what might have happened with the scheduling if Poland had made a run to the semi-finals.
Up front, Spanish striker Carlitos is newly arrived after a superb season with Wisla Krakow and he will look to link with former Arsenal attacker Eduardo da Silva.
When the draw was made, Legia coach Dean Klafuric admitted that he didn’t know anything about City but pointed to World Cup results as evidence that their opponents couldn’t be taken lightly, even with Legia having overcome St Patrick’s Athletic and Dundalk in recent years.
City boss John Caulfield was under no illusions about the size of the task.
“It’s the toughest draw we could have got,” he said.
“They have Jędrzejczyk and Pazdan in the Poland World Cup squad, there two more in the extended squad, that shows the level they’re at.
“Two years ago against Dundalk in the Aviva Stadium, they were superb, they played Dundalk off the park, though Dundalk did do better in the second leg. With the way the seeding was, we knew that we could get a draw like this, we had already done some work on them and we’ll make sure that we’re prepared accordingly.
“Our fans will love going to Warsaw and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Nevertheless, the fact that City are match-sharp whereas this is the start of Legia’s season is something which could count in City’s favour.
“It’ll be their first game back and they’ll have the lads coming from the World Cup,” Caulfield said, “so you’d hope in front of a packed Turner’s Cross we can put pressure on them.
“They’re a quality team but we’ve always acquitted ourselves well in Europe. It’s the Champions League, it’s where you want to be.”
Obviously, the aim for City is to win, but if that can’t be achieved then at least for them to still be in the tie heading to Poland for next week’s second leg.
One wonders how they are likely to approach the game in terms of selection. Damien Delaney hasn’t been signed to sit on the bench and while it would be a big call to start him, it’s not one Caulfield would be afraid of – presumably instead of Alan Bennett rather than Seán McLoughlin.
Another poser will be whether to stick with Conor McCarthy at right-back if Colm Horgan is out, or if Steven Beattie should come back in.
If the aim is to keep it tight, it also wouldn’t be a surprise to see Barry McNamee or Jimmy Keohane or both back in the side, to provide a ball-carrying influence similar to that provided by Neale Fenn when he excelled in big European games.
Can City get a result? Yes. Will they? It will be a tall order but in front of a packed house against a team just starting its season, stranger things have happened.