Cork City manager John Caulfield is convinced that Irish clubs will continue to make inroads in Europe in the coming years.
Dundalk may be the standard bearers at the moment, following some impressive exploits by Shamrock Rovers.
But Caulfield’s own Rebel Army want to make their mark and reach the third qualifying round of the Europa League here in hot and sticky Cyprus tonight (kick-off 6pm Irish time)
Cork are up against classy opponents in AEK Larnaca who have a one-goal advantage from the first leg at Turner’s Cross last week and with a heavy Spanish influence and a Spanish manager in Imanol Idiakez from San Sebastian, they will fancy their chances at their brand new 7,400 seater AEK Arena.
“The landscape in European football has changed dramatically in recent years for Irish clubs with the strides Dundalk, Shamrock Rovers, and ourselves have made and we are really competing at this level now,” Caulfield said.
“It’s no longer a case of going out and trying to keep the score down. The Irish clubs are having a go and we go out to compete now. We did it last year against Genk and we plan to try and overturn our one-goal deficit here tonight.”
Caulfield intends to play a counter-attacking style and a 4-2-3-1 formation and insists he is not interested in using the heat and humidity of an 8 o’clock local time start as an excuse.
“We are a goal down so the priority is to try and get that goal back first and foremost.
“We did reasonably well last week in Cork but I know we can play better even if we do have limited possession again. It’s all about patience, penetration, and game management for us,” said Caulfield.
“The first goal tonight is key to the whole match and I think we are as good as AEK who are probably on a par with Racing Club Genk.”
City’s two injury concerns — left sided players Kevin O’Connor and Stephen Dooley — are expected to be fit having missed the win over Bray Wanderers at the weekend.
Alan Bennett, who made a comeback at the Carlisle Grounds in the 2-0 win on Sunday, should also feature.
Caulfield accused the Cypriots of gamesmanship after the first leg in Cork and is hoping there will be no repeat antics from AEK tonight.
“The sad thing is that it’s all part of the game over here in Cyprus and that’s a pity and we will need a strong referee to handle it. We will need to be very disciplined and we can’t allow ourselves to be lured or drawn into silly tackles where we might pick up unnecessary bookings.
“It’s way different to our own league back home where the referees allow challenges to go on but, unfortunately, here these guys read the situation, and if you come too close, they just go down at the merest touch.
“It’s disappointing to see it but what we have to do as a team is avoid going in too tight in the tackle and we have spoken about it and we need to be clever in this return match. Some referees don’t want any contact at all and that is spoiling the game too,” he said.
Caulfield added: “The most frustrating thing for me was seeing a quality team like AEK and the diving, time-wasting and foul play they were carrying on with in Cork last week. It upset me but it seems to have become the norm in European football.
“The referees could stamp it out but some of them turn a blind eye to it.”
AEK have been league runners-up for the last three years here with APOEL crowned league champions for the last five years. To a lesser extent, AEK have been in the shadow of Apollon Limassol as well. AEK go into tonight’s clash, only their second home competitive game, with a 10-game unbeaten run intact after they knocked out Gibraltar’s Lincoln Red Imps in the last round.
The Cypriot league kicks off on August 19 and manager Idiakez will be hoping to create history as AEK, who won the Cypriot FA Cup in 2006, have never won the championship in Cyprus.
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