It’s one of those brilliant David vs Goliath clashes that European competition often throws up.
League of Ireland minnows Shamrock Rovers take on one of the aristocrats of the continental game and one of the most famous clubs in the world in AC Milan on Thursday night.
It may only be the second qualifying round of the UEFA Europa League – and regrettably no supporters will be allowed into the ground to watch – but it still promises to be a memorable occasion.
We compare the two clubs in our tale of the tape.
League of Ireland side Shamrock Rovers hosts the mighty AC Milan in the Europa League on Thursday night in what is a true David vs Goliath clash
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is in the Milan squad for the encounter at the Tallaght Stadium in Dublin
Thursday night’s venue is the Tallaght Stadium in the southern suburbs of Dublin.
Though the capacity is just 8,000, it is one of the better-appointed venues in the Irish league and has regularly hosted European fixtures in the past.
The last time there were visitors of Milan’s ilk came in July 2010 when Juventus visited for a Europa League qualifier.
But Shamrock did reach the group stages of the 2011-12 Europa League, playing Tottenham Hotspur, Greek club PAOK and Russians Rubin Kazan at the Tallaght so big European nights aren’t a new thing.
Milan’s stadium needs little introduction. The San Siro – or the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza as it’s officially known – holds almost 10 times as many supporters as Shamrock’s ground.
It’s hosted four European Cup finals in the past as well as matches at Euro 1980 and the 1990 World Cup.
The Tallaght Stadium in Dublin holds 8,000 fans but will be empty because of coronavirus
Milan fans at the San Siro create a cauldron-like atmosphere ahead of a derby with Inter Milan
It’s completely wrong to portray Shamrock as European novices. Given their extensive success in the Irish competitions, they regularly qualify for continental competition.
Their first foray into the European Cup – as it was then known – was way back in 1957-58 when they lost 9-2 on aggregate to Matt Busby’s Manchester United team.
Bayern Munich, Valencia, Schalke and Celtic have all been European opponents in the past as well as Juventus and Spurs as previously mentioned.
Their qualification to the group stages in 2011-12 is something of an anomaly though. Reformatting of the competition’s qualifying rounds since then usually means their European adventure is often done and dusted by July.
Shamrock took on Italian giants Juventus at the Tallaght Stadium in the Europa League in 2010
The Irish side also reached the group stages of the 2011-12 Europa League and played Spurs
Milan’s lustre may have faded in recent seasons but there’s no questioning their status as one of Europe’s most prestigious clubs.
That comes from many historic triumphs, including seven European Cup/Champions League wins and two successes in the European Cup Winners’ Cup.
Milan last conquered Europe in 2007, when a team containing the likes of Kaka, Andrea Pirlo and Paolo Maldini beat Liverpool in the final.
Their last three forays into Europe have been in the Europa League, however, having slipped down the Serie A standings.
Milan last won the Champions League in 2007 – when they defeated Liverpool 2-1 in the final
|Shamrock Rovers||AC Milan|
|Green and white||Colours||Red and black|
|Stephen Bradley||Manager||Stefano Pioli|
|Tallaght Stadium||Stadium||San Siro|
Shamrock don’t boast too many household names but they do have two Republic of Ireland international in their team.
Midfielder Jack Byrne, 24, who has two caps for his country, started his career with Manchester City and also played for Wigan, Oldham and Kilmarnock before returning to his home city.
Byrne has combined with fellow international Graham Burke, 26, currently on loan from Preston North End, for nine of the Hoops’ 24 league goals this season.
Burke came through the ranks at Aston Villa before playing for Notts County. A flurry of goals in 2017 and 2018 led to Preston signing him but he’s only played 15 games for them so far.
Jack Byrne (right) congratulates Neil Farrugia after scoring for Shamrock against Cork City
If fans had been allowed at the game, all eye would undoubtedly be on Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The veteran Swedish striker, still going strong at 38, has shaken off an injury to make the squad.
Ibrahimovic has played in 139 European matches so there isn’t much he doesn’t know but playing behind closed doors in these competitions will be a new one.
Other familiar names in the Milan squad heading to Dublin are goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma (and his elder brother Antonio, also a keeper) and Turkish midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu.
There’s also a Maldini in the line-up – that is Paolo’s 18-year-old son Daniel, who is actually an attacking midfielder rather than a defender and has made a couple of first-team appearances.
Milan are short of a few regulars through injury and suspension but you’d be hard pressed to argue this is a vintage Rossoneri team having only been good enough to finish sixth last season.
Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma is regarded as one of the most promising in the world
It goes without saying that the League of Ireland isn’t exactly awash with money and it’s a real shame Shamrock can’t capitalise on this golden draw with a capacity crowd.
They haven’t spent a penny on any new signings this year, relying on frees and loans. The value of their entire squad is estimated at £1.7m with an annual budget of a similar amount.
Compare that to Ibrahimovic, who earns £104,000-a-week at Milan or £5.4m per year – so over two-and-a-half times Shamrock’s entire budget.
When the League of Ireland season was suspended because of the Covid-19 outbreak in mid-March, Shamrock’s players took a 25 per cent wage cut to cope with the financial impact.
Danny Lafferty (right) celebrates scoring for Shamrock against Bohemians earlier this month
It came as league rivals Cork City and Sligo Rovers temporarily laid off their squads and local rivals Bohemians restructured their pay arrangements.
At the time, it was said any shortfall in wages would be made up by income from European prize money later in the year.
They are expected to make £200,000 in prize money even if they lose.
It isn’t the first time the club has struggled. In 2005, they almost went to the wall over debts of two millions euros but were ultimately saved by their own supporters.
Milan are regarded as one Europe’s wealthiest clubs and are active in the elite European Club Association but their recent absence from the Champions League has seen them slip to 21st in the latest Deloitte Football Rich List.
Nonetheless, their annual revenue of around £188m is approximately 100 times Shamrock’s budget and squad worth.
Milan celebrate scoring a goal during their pre-season friendly match against Monza
Stephen Bradley, 35, is in charge at Shamrock and has been since 2016.
Once on the books of Arsenal, Bradley carved out a career in the Scottish and Irish leagues and represented Ireland at under-21 level.
Bradley clearly sees no reason why his team should be overawed, saying on the eve of the game: ‘We’re bringing football royalty to Tallaght but once the whistle blows it’s just another game. We believe we can cause some problems.’
Shamrock manager Stephen Bradley has told his players not to be fazed by the Milan challenge
Stefano Pioli is the latest in a long line of managers to take charge at Milan in recent years
Milan have been through plenty of managers in recent years, with eight coming and going since Massimiliano Allegri left in 2014.
The latest is Stefano Pioli, who took over in October 2019 and extended his contract for another two years after overseeing a strong finish to the Serie A campaign.
While most of Shamrock’s match-going regulars come from the Southside of Dublin, the club’s strong Irish identity has gained them popularity across the country.
In the 2019 season, the club averaged crowds of 3,445 for home league fixtures, the highest in the division by a fair distance. The highest gate was 7,021 which would have no doubt been exceeded for the Milan match had fans been allowed in.
The club boast Ireland’s first Ultras group who produce colourful choreographed displays at their matches.
Shamrock fans in party mood during their game with Spurs at White Hart Lane back in 2011
Their main rivals are fellow Dublin club Bohemians.
Milan boast supporters from all parts of Italy and, indeed, from all over the world who admire their stylish way of playing and rich history of success.
They averaged a crowd of 53,957 for San Siro games during season 2019-20, second only to their bitter rivals Inter in Serie A.
Of course they have dozens of Ultras groups, who combine to create breath-taking displays during big matches with enormous flags, banners and pyrotechnics.
AC Milan fans illuminate the San Siro with flares and wave enormous flags at the derby
The Irish top-flight resumed at the start of August and Shamrock have continued their march towards their first league title since 2011.
Unbeaten in six league games since then, they are eight points ahead of nearest challengers Bohemians in the table.
Their first qualifying round Europa League tie with the Finnish side Ilves Tampere at the Tallaght Stadium finished in a 2-2 draw before Shamrock won an epic penalty shoot-out 12-11.
So at least they have plenty of momentum coming into this definite step up in class.
Milan won nine and drew three of their Serie A matches post-restart, remaining unbeaten, but could be excused for being a little rusty here as it’s their first competitive game since August 1.
They have, however, won all four of their pre-season friendlies, against Novara, Monza, Vicenza and Brescia.