Manager John Caulfield is predicting a blood-and-thunder battle in Estonia as Cork City kick off their continental adventure on Thursday evening against Levadia Tallinn at the Rannastaadion (translated literally as “the beach stadium”) in the coastal city of Parnu, about two hours drive from the capital.
On the shores of the Baltic Sea, it’s a Middlesbrough player who presents a major threat to the SSE Airtricity League leaders. João Morelli is a 21-year-old Brazilian on loan at Levadia from the side relegated from the Premier League last season.
Caulfield has been poring over match footage and recognises the South American as a real danger.
“He’s the playmaker, he’s very quick, and shoots from everywhere. He’s a very skilful player, and looks really decent.”
Caulfield likens the Estonian Meistriliiga side to a “top-three League of Ireland side”.
“They’ve a lot of pace, a lot of energy, and they play at high intensity. It’s not going to be like a typical slow European game,” reckoned Caulfield. “I’ve watched three or four of their games. Their style is quite similar to League of Ireland teams. Their nature is ‘old’ Russia: They’re tough, they’re physical, they’re technically good. I think they’re very similar to any of the top three teams in Ireland.
“We think we’ve identified areas where we can cause them problems, but at the same time, they score a few goals and they get the ball into the box quickly. The wingers get the ball down and they fire it into the box. There’s no messing about.”
Levadia have faced Irish competition in the Champions League previously, overcoming Bohemians under Stephen Kenny 3-1 on aggregate in 2004 but losing out to 3-1 to Drogheda under then boss Paul Doolin.
With the cash streams which Europe opens up, qualification is crucial and progression eases the financial reins considerably, with the knock-on effect of improving squads for the bread-and-butter of the League of Ireland campaign. Qualification for the next round is worth €225,000 in prize money alone. For ambitious Irish clubs, it’s the only show in town.
“Europe is crucial,” said Caulfield. “You have to qualify and to get through one round. If you do that, you’re making nearly quarter of a million euro. With charter flights and all that, almost half of that cash is gone, but it’s still so important. Getting into Europe is a must for clubs, now. If you don’t, you can’t have that budget, can’t attract better players. It’s a necessity. It’s where you need to be.”
City will bring young talents Conor McCarthy and Alec Byrne today, but the game will come too early for the club’s latest signing, Sean McLoughlin. McLoughlin was UCC’s player of the year in the Munster Senior League this season and also featured for the Irish Colleges and Universities side.
He has trained with his new team-mates and will play his part in the rest of the league campaign. With club captain Johnny Dunleavy on the long-term injury list, and European obligations testing the squad’s limits, his chance could arrive sooner rather than later.
“I think he’ll be a really good player. He had an offer from an SPL club and a League One club as well,” said Caulfield. “He has signed for a year-and-a-half. He can play left-back or left centre-back and he is very good on the ball. He is a guy who has come through UCC, who have done very well over the last few years. It is a big step up, but he has done well in training. He is getting used to it and we see him as player who can step up to the mark very quickly, so we have high hopes for him.”
With star striker Sean Maguire leaving Turner’s Cross for Preston at the end of next month, City are likely to bring in one more new face for the rest of the season.
“We are hoping for something to be done before the second leg,” said Caulfield. “We’re all out to bring one attacking player in and that’ll probably be it. We won’t be doing too much more. We’re looking at the bigger picture and we’re happy enough.”