Champions win battle of the Rovers to move five points clear

Cleary, Watts and Burke all on target for Shams as cushion is again stretched to five with five games remaining 
Champions win battle of the Rovers to move five points clear

Three and easy: Shamrock Rovers’ Graham Burke celebrates after scoring the third goal of the game against Sligo Rovers. Pic: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Sligo Rovers 1 Shamrock Rovers 2 

Holders Shamrock Rovers extended their lead at the top of the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division back to five points – with five games remaining – following an excellent 3-1 win over Sligo Rovers at The Showgrounds.

In what was a classy performance from the leaders, who needed to win in order to increase their advantage over second-placed Derry City, first-half goals from Daniel Cleary and Dylan Watts provided the foundation with Graham Burke adding the winners’ third goal in the second-half.

The home side, who remain sixth in the standings following this loss, grabbed what proved a consolation when centre-back Nando Pijnaker netted with 15 minutes of normal time left.

Sligo were last in action two weeks previously – an away loss to Derry – and they were looking for a win to reignite their faint hopes of finishing in the top-four. The hosts gave a fourth start of the season to veteran goalkeeper Richard Brush, a replacement for first-choice custodian Luke McNicholas, who picked up a season-ending ankle injury while on duty with the Republic of Ireland U-21 men’s squad.

The visitors’ first sight of goal was an off-target shot from Burke. Then Rory Gaffney threatened to open the scoring – after turning Shane Blaney – but the experienced Brush made a fine block to thwart Rovers’ target man.

The visitors' pressure was rewarded after 15 minutes. A clearance from a corner was picked up by Sean Kavanagh and his delicious delivery from the left was headed home by Cleary from inside the six-yard box.

Sligo responded with two decent shots from their 18-goal man Aidan Keena – in between these efforts from the Mullingar native was another chance for the impressive Gaffney, who went close to doubling the Hoops’ lead.

The champions continued to dominate and a sequence of neat passes ended with Burke curling a shot wide of the target.

A superb move saw them go 2-0 up in the 38th minute. Gaffney was involved in the build-up and then Jack Byrne’s sumptuous through ball found the run of Watts, who stroked a shot into the bottom corner.

On the stroke of half-time Sligo almost pulled a goal back but Max Mata’s close-range effort was blocked – with the home fans and players believing that there was a handball – following Frank Liivak’s cross.

Rovers controlled the second-half. Burke and Gaffney continued to impress and Lee Grace went close with an audacious overhead kick following a corner. A Burke effort from a tight angle came off the legs of Brush in the 57th minute.

There was a slight improvement from Sligo, who threatened with a shot from Paddy Kirk after Keena’s pass released the full-back.

It was Burke who wrapped up a confident display – he converted at the far post from Gaffney’s tempting cross after 70 minutes.

The hosts pulled a goal back in the 75th minute when Pijnaker got the final touch to a ball sent into the goalmouth from substitute Kailin Barlow’s free-kick.

Sligo Rovers: Brush; Horgan, Blaney, Pijnaker, Kirk; Bolger (Morahan 63), McDonnell (Barlow 63), Cawley (Burton 46); Liivak (O’Sullivan 72); Keena, Mata (Fitzgerald 63) 

Shamrock Rovers: Manus; Finn (Farrugia 84), Gannon (Hoare 74), Grace, Cleary, Kavanagh (Lyons 71); Watts, O’Neill; Byrne (Serdenyuk 84); Gaffney, Burke (Greene 71) 

Referee: Paul McLaughlin

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