Shamrock Rovers enter what feels like the second phase of their European campaign with the ultimate target of group stage qualification this summer.

Having put up a brave effort against Ludogorets, and with regrets regarding how some of the 180 minutes played out, the Premier Division champions have been given a favourable route of advancing in second or third tier competitions.

Shamrock Rovers showed their quality in a win over Ludogorets, but went out on aggregate

The Europa League third round clash with North Macedonian outfit Shkupi brings the first opportunity to secure group stage football.

A win would earn a place in the Conference League, while defeat would see a decider against Ballkani (Kosovo) or KI (Faroe Islands).

Having missed out at the final hurdle against Flora Tallinn last year, these matches represent even better chances for the Hoops to realise their ambition of ending a wait of over a decade to follow up what Michael O'Neill and his players achieved.

Tallaght Stadium will once again welcome over 6,000 fans as, for the third time in a row, the Dublin outfit will begin a tie at home.

Shkupi have never been this far in European football in their short history.

But their performance in the last round against Dinamo Zagreb was hugely impressive, securing a 2-2 draw away from home before exiting on a 1-0 loss.

Dinamo have gone on to secure an away win over Ludogorets, so the warning sign is there for Stephen Bradley’s side.

They may be considered favourites but this is going to be a tough tie with the North Macedonian champions.

As a player, their manager Goce Sedloski was in the Macedonia side which secured a 3-2 win against the Republic of Ireland in Euro 2000 qualifying. That proved to be fatal for Ireland’s hopes.

A squad of mostly local players, they also had representatives from Jamaica, Nigeria, Algeria, Brazil, Costa Rica and Georgia in their starting line-up last time out.

That shows a side geared for Europe, and it has worked well so far, although they did have a scare against Lincoln Red Imps of Gibraltar in the earlier round.

With their new league season not beginning until later this week, fitness will also be on side of the home side.

Defender Lee Grace admits it offers Shamrock Rovers a small edge: "They won’t say but you would see it (as an advantage). In pre-season you’re not in full flow.

"I’m sure they’re still a very good side. When you’re deep into European competition, there’ll be no bad sides. They’ll still be on their game."

Shkupi's passionate away support will be present in Tallaght, as it was in Zagreb

Europe brings with it a lot of work for players and managers before a ball is even kicked.

As Shkupi have both impressed and had a poor display, much like the Hoops, it can be difficult to know what to expect.

Grace has discussed the lengths they go to learn more on their opponents.

He added: "The gaffer and the staff are very good with it. They get as much video as they can to us, whether it is 90-minute games, or clips of them going forward or defending.

"They sent us individual pieces on each player as well so they can’t do any more for us. I’m sure they’re doing the exact same. It’s different from playing teams in the league. You know them inside-out."

The former Galway United defender was at fault for the key goal in the last tie as his side conceded a third goal in injury-time.

That remains on his mind, as does the stirring display in the follow-up leg.

"We’re definitely frustrated. Especially me, because of the third goal over there, as I played the free-kick quickly. It was a bit naïve by me, a bit naïve by us all, but it’s frustration and we have to get over it and concentrate on Shkupi.

"The performance we put up against Ludogorets in Tallaght gives us great confidence going into this one. We’ve done our homework on Shkupi, they’re going to be a good side, and I’m sure they’ve done their homework on us. It should be a good game.

"I saw a few things on Tuesday about the 'safety net' as people call it of the Conference League but our focus is fully on this one.

"If we win this, we’re into the group stages of that at least. That is what our eyes are set on. We have to worry about Shkupi.

"The Ludgorets home game is the level we can hit and that’s the level we need here."

Watch CSKA Sofia v St Patrick's Athletic live on the RTÉ News channel on Thursday at 6pm, with live blog on and the RTÉ News app, including updates on Viking FC v Sligo Rovers and then Shamrock Rovers v Shkupi at 8pm.

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