Gary O'Neill’s superb strike may not prove decisive, however, the midfielder’s last-minute effort has certainly put Shamrock Rovers in the driving seat ahead of tonight’s Europa League qualifier against Shkupi in Skopje.

Leading 2-1 in the first leg at Tallaght Stadium, and with the allotted six minutes of injury time already elapsed, a late Rovers corner found Sean Hoare in space at the back post, where the centre-half somehow had the vision and the composure to pick out his team-mate on the edge of the box.

Kerry native O’Neill did the rest, picking his spot, before whipping an unstoppable effort into the top corner in front of the adoring South Stand faithful.

A quick turnaround for the Hoops in an unorthodox Thursday-Tuesday double header, however, the Dublin club will be relieved, at least, to have made the trip to North Macedonia with the minimum of fuss.

And now Stephen Bradley’s side can go out and secure European group stage football to mirror the great Michael O’Neill side of 2011, who became the first Irish team to reach the holy grail in that season’s Europa League.

Granted, victory in Skopje tonight – Rovers can even afford to lose by a single goal and still progress – is only affording the Hoops a guaranteed place in the Conference League group stages, however, it will also set up a veritable free shot against Ferencvaros or Qarabag for a place in the Europa League equivalent.

Dundalk are the only other Irish side to enjoy group stage football, and the fact that Rovers are going into the game as favourites to progress must be almost unique in League of Ireland terms, however, it is far from a given that the Hoops will make it through.

Shkupi have blown hot and cold throughout their two and a half rounds of European action this season and while it may be noted that they lost 2-0 to a side from a Rock at the foot of the Iberian peninsula, the second half at Tallaght last Thursday shows that they can prove more than a threat.

And it is no wonder that Bradley is talking about front foot football, taking the game to their opponents and playing to win at the Todor Proeski Arena tonight, knowing only too well how a touch of complacency or a lack of belief can be punished at this level.

Bradley is setting his stall out to win the game, but there is no doubt that his side will have a large amount of containing to do in the opening period as Shkupi will surely come out all guns blazing to attempt to reduce the deficit.

Graham Burke's quality on the ball is a real asset for the Dublin club

Perhaps even inspired by their opponents who did something similar in the home tie second leg against Ludogorets at Tallaght Stadium, where on another night, the three-goal difference could have been cancelled out by half-time.

Bradley has a very strong squad to choose from with no one missing through suspension, however, he will have to plan without the influential Chris McCann, who is ruled out through injury.

McCann wasn’t an instant success at the Dublin club since moving back from an excellent career in England, however, this season he has filled a big void left in the team through Jack Byrne’s absence, and while they are not completely cut from the same cloth, they can both have a similar influence on proceedings.

"He forces us to play when it’s easier just to kick it and get caught up in a 50:50 game, Chris takes control of the game," said Bradley in the pre-match press conference, which shows the high regard that his manager holds him in.

As one door closes, another opens, and the manager spoke confidently about the availability of Byrne ahead of the game. While the Ireland midfielder has had little game time in recent months, Bradley still believes that he could prove influential if called upon.

"He’s available," said Bradley. "He’s been really unlucky. He’s come back and felt something else. But he’s available and a player of Jack ability is someone who can influence the game at any level."

An impact substitution perhaps, if Rovers are struggling to get on top in tonight’s game, but the manager is likely to look to the other big players in the squad to step up to see out the tie.

Alan Mannus proved one such player in the first leg, and experienced European campaigners like Sean Gannon, Ronan Finn and Sean Hoare should prove invaluable on a potentially historic night in the club’s history.

But Rovers real weapon will, no doubt, be their ability to hit and hurt Shkupi on the counterattack and no better man for that particular job at the moment than the relentless Rory Gaffney, who is having a remarkable season in the famous green and white hoops.

Gaffney’s running, physicality and link-up play seems to be even more effective in the European outings and with quality back-up like Graham Burke, Dylan Watts, Richie Towell and Andy Lyons joining in on the attack, the Dublin side have every chance of living up to their favourites tag.

Gary O’Neill, of course, grabbed that all-important goal in Dublin, and while that strike could be crucial, the midfielder’s natural role sitting in front of the defence, breaking up the play and frustrating the attacking intentions of the home side may prove a lot more valuable for Rovers in the Skopje heat tonight.

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