ANOTHER frustrating evening for Cork City, who once again never really got to show their full hand against AEK Larnaca, left contained by a Cypriot outfit far better than the Leesiders on Thursday night.
Not that this was an unbeatable Larnaca team by any means, but another suffocated performance from the Leesiders against the side who had their couterparts’ number for the vast majority of the two games, turning the screw and pressing high to break down anything City tried before the ball even reached halfway.
Far too pedestrian from the off going forward, and it never looked like AEK’s rock-solid defensive shape was going to be dragged out of position. The first real blow for the Leesiders this season, made even harder as a sign-off for Kevin O’Connor and the inimitable Sean Maguire, whose immense effect on this football club will be felt long after the stinging disappointment of last night fades.
A huge loss pre-match was Alan Bennett, who again failed to even make the bench despite playing a full 90 minutes against Bray Wanderers the Sunday previous. The defender has been a big loss for City in the last few weeks, and there were more than one disappointed face as midfielders Keohane and McCormack were again named in defence.
Not that there is anything wrong with either individually, but the presence McCormack provides in midfield would have made a massive difference to an idea in which the Rebel Army were dominated from start to finish.
City’s biggest woes were again down the right flank, that the Cypriot side’s even in the opening moments had joy against an inexcusably standoffish Kevin O’Connor was a sign of things to come. Hector Hevel was named on the left side of the three behind striker Florian Taulemesse, but setup camp on the opposite side, wreaking havoc.
The Rebel Army’s best efforts were coming down the same flank, with Stephen Dooley linking up with Maguire before firing wide, before a City growing into the game saw the Derry native do well to force the issue inside the AEK half, but Buckley’s ambitious effort from deep continue to rise over the bar.
John Caulfield’s men could have been excused of conserving their energy given the unfamiliar heat but were giving their hugely experienced hosts far too much respect, and easy passes into Hevel saw him allowed turn inside and cross, a few hurried clearances getting the Rebel Army out of hot water.
However, a fortunate goal when it came was an unfair blow on the Leesiders, who were – for the first time – playing more direct, and showed signs of potentially unlocking an AEK side showing their experience through their defensive positioning.
Born from the same errors however, Hevel being allowed to turn inside and cross for the umpteenth time, a half-decent sliding clearance falling straight to the feet Larena Jorge, who should have been closed down by Buckley well before the ball bounced off his backside and into the path of Taulemesse to head home, you make your own luck.
The Cypriots were extremely lucky to have held onto their goalscorer five minutes into the second-half, a really nasty late tackle, the Frenchman leaving his studs in on Conor McCormack, saw referee Pavle Radovanović brandish yellow when it could have easily been red.
On the hour mark a shake up; new signing Sadlier, who impressed last Sunday in Bray, replaced Stephen Dooley, while Achille Campion in for the ineffective Garry Buckley, and after a further six minutes of huffing and puffing the inevitable switch of Sheppard for Keohane was made as the visitors finally tried to go for it.
They should have been given a lifeline with around 20 minutes left, as a shove from behind bundled over Maguire, Radovanović’s head shook and a frustrating tie rumbled on.
Not with any more success however, another harrowing example of how little the Rebel Army have up front when Maguire leaves. As the Leesiders hit their full stride earlier on this season we saw goals coming from all over the pitch, but to count the amount of games John Caulfield’s side have won either directly or indirectly through the Kilkenny native is to approach double figures.
Next Friday against Galway will be fascinating to see how City plan to deal with the ‘post-Seanie’ era. A few weeks ago City boss Caulfield was talking about the multiple leads he had for potential replacements, but during the Europa League run that discourse has run dry, one would hope to hear that something has progressed on that front.
And moving back it’s clear to see that the Leesiders are again extremely short personnel defensively. Conor McCarthy, who has performed so well in the senior setup since his integration, will hopefully begin a run of games in the side alongside Ryan Delaney.
The ambition now will be to complete a domestic treble, if not quadruple, the Cup draw on Friday morning brings more games in a busy schedule, bolstering will surely be required if City want to bury Thursday night’s performance to forgotten history, and create their own.