Cork City have been to the Baltics before on European football expeditions in Latvia and Lithuania but this evening’s Europa League first round qualifier here in the coastal resort town of Parnu is a first for the club.
John Caulfield’s side, FAI Cup champions and the runaway league leaders at home face a Levadia Tallinn side with a very similar domestic record as Igor Prins’ side are unbeaten in 17 matches so far this year — winning 13 and drawing four.
Levadia originally wanted City to reverse this fixture as their own Kadriorg Stadium in Tallinn is out of commission at the moment and that’s why City faced a two-hour road trip from the capital to tonight’s match venue, the 1,500 capacity Parnu Rannastaadion.
Levadia were founded in 1998 and are a well-known club in these parts, having won nine league titles and eight Estonian Cups and have never been relegated from the Meistriliiga, the top flight of Estonian football. Having said that, they generally live in the shadow of Tallinn’s other major club, FC Flora.
However, Prins, in his second stint with the club, is targeting a win tonight, though he accepts most observers have the visitors as favourites to progress.
“We are mindful of Cork’s unbeaten record just like our own and we know they are a strong, well-organised side and they have a good European pedigree.
“Both teams are eager to win the game and that’s the goal for both teams. On paper, we can say that Cork have the advantage because they look very strong, according to the newspapers.
“They had a good run to the third round of the competition last year before losing to Genk in Belgium and they in turn got to the quarter-finals before losing to Celta Vigo of Spain. We have played Irish teams over the years with Bohemians and Drogheda coming to Tallinn and a team from the north, Crusaders, beat us two years ago on the away goals rule.
“We feel there is little between the teams and we know it will be a tight and competitive match for us. It’s important that we try and win at home and take an advantage back to Cork next week.”
Levadia play a 4-2-3-1 system, they have four internationals in their side — two senior and two U21 players — and have a good blend of youth and experience.
They were league runners-up last year and took the Czech side Slavia Prague to the brink in a Europa League match only to go out (3-3 on aggregate) on the away goals after a 3-1 home win. It was a significant result and one that Cork are well aware of going into tonight’s action.
“The draw has not been kind to us giving us very tough opponents in Cork City but it all starts from today. Personally it’s a bit sad that we cannot play at home in Tallinn but we have a lovely city here in Parnu and I am hoping that we will have a nice atmosphere for the game. Outside of Tallinn, this is the best option for us.”
City manager John Caulfield says the open-ended stadium is an unusual venue for a European match with a running track around the playing pitch and one stand.
“They have youth in their team and they have pace and penetration out wide. They play a similar system to us with two defensive midfielders screening the back four and they have a very good creative player in the Brazilian Joao Morelli in the middle of the park.
“He’s here on loan from Middlesbrough and he’s the danger man in the No. 10 role along with striker Rimo Hunt who is very strong in the air and knows how to score goals.
“Every game in Europe is a tricky assignment and this is no different. If we perform to our best then we have a right chance of making progress over the two games. We have done a lot of work on them and we know what to expect tonight.”
Speaking after yesterday’s training spin at the venue, Caulfield revealed skipper Alan Bennett is City’s only doubt with an ankle ligament injury. He sat out last night’s session as a precaution while Steven Beattie took a full part.
In the knockabout in warm, sunny conditions, Conor McCormack played at centre-half alongside Ryan Delaney with Greg Bolger paired with Gearoid Morrissey in front of the back four.
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