Saints up against it after draw

AFTER admirable away draws for Bohemians and Derry City, St Patrick’s Athletic last night made it three one-ones on the trot for League of Ireland teams in Europe – but, with a precious away goal to take home with them, it was Valletta of Malta who were doing the celebrating at the end of this Uefa Europa League Second Qualifying Round first leg tie at Richmond Park.

Pat’s went into the match badly depleted by injury and suspension, with Jason Gavin, Mark Quigley, Mark Leech, Gary Dempsey, John Lester and Gints Freimanis all missing out but Declan O’Brien, on loan front Dundalk, was able to make what would prove to be a significant debut for the Saints.

Valletta had former Manchester United man and son of Johann, the now completely bald Jordi Cruyff, at the centre of their defence, with ex-Shamrock Rovers man Luke Dimech close at hand in a set-up which favoured attacking wingbacks. But, despite Valletta schemer Gilbert Agius attempting a Beckham-like effort from inside his own half – which Gary Rogers in the Pat’s goal comfortably fielded – it was the home side who shaded the often frantic but less than gripping opening exchanges, with first Bobby Ryan and then Stuart Byrne coming close with low drives from distance.

Finally, on 36 minutes, the Dubliners took a deserved lead, the honour going to debut boy O’Brien who, showing all his experience, seized on a loose ball in the box to supply an instinctive, angled after a neat run and cross from Stephen Maher on the right.

The goal was enough to give Pat’s the advantage at half-time but, almost from the restart, it was the Maltese who were applying the pressure, with towering target man Gijsbertus den Ouden guilty of not doing better when he failed to keep a snapshot down from a promising position inside the box.

With Cruyff urging his charges forward and the Lavian referee not inclined to give Pat’s much of the benefit of the doubt, it looked like it could be a long second spell Jeff Kenna’s team. And, sure enough, on 65 minutes, Gilbert Agius split the home defence with a through ball and was then on hand to receive the return pass from den Ouden, which he coolly guided to the corner of the net despite Rogers’ efforts to keep it out.

The setback returned Pat’s to the offensive, Bobby Ryan quickly extracting a fine save from Valletta keeper Andrew Hogg, but Jamie Pace promptly came even closer for the visitors, his superb left-footed volley brilliantly tipped over the top by Gary Rogers.

With the game having now developed an end to end momentum, Alan Cawley almost restored Pat’s league with an exquisite chip which just dropped over the bar. However, in the 81st minute, after a series of passes had cut through the Pat’s rearguard, den Ouden was guilty of an unforgivable miss, side-footing high and wide with only goalkeeper Rogers to beat.

Pat’s kept on plugging away to the end but, in truth, lacked the guile to give themselves a badly needed advantage as they now prepare for the blistering heat of Valletta.

ST PATRICK’S ATHLETIC: Rogers, Maher, Harris, Partridge, Stevens, Ryan (Fitzpatrick 68), Cawley, Byrne, O’Connor, Guy, O’Brien.

VALLETTA FC: Hogg, Bezzina, Dimech, Cruyff, Sciciuna, Briffa, Agius, Pace, Falzon (Zammit 76), den Ouden (Agius 89), Priso.

Referee: A Sipailo (Latvia).

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