The scene is set for a juggernaut collision at Tallaght Stadium tonight as Shamrock Rovers face Dundalk for the first time this season.
All the ingredients are in place for a big one: This is not just a meeting of cup holders and league champions but a head to head between two sides whose respective three out of three winning starts to the new season have done nothing to diminish the expectation that the 2020 title could ultimately be decided in favour of one or the other.
Adding to the sense of occasion will be an expected record attendance in Tallaght, exceeding the 7,021 who saw Stephen Bradley’s team beat Bohemians at the same venue last August. For those who can’t make it, the game is live on RTÉ2.
“It’s fantastic that we’re talking about a League of Ireland game being a sell-out, over 8,000, and it’s no surprise that it’s our club that’s involved in it,” said the Hoops boss. “It shows where we’ve come from and where we’re going, so I’m delighted to have another big crowd in Tallaght.”
Assessing the threat presented by Dundalk, Bradley said: “They’re obviously league champions and a top team but we don’t fear anyone. They’re a good side but we’re a good side as well and we’ll go to win the game.”
Graham Burke, who scored five against Cork City, misses out with a calf injury while, pending clearance, new signing Rory Gaffney will be involved either from the start or off the bench. Gary O’Neill may miss out on compassionate grounds following the sudden passing of his mother Noreen.
“I think it’s important that it’s Gary’s decision,” said his manager. “We support him 100% no matter what because it’s time for him right now to be with his family and grieve.” Rovers go into the game at the top of the table, leading Dundalk with a plus-four goal-difference swelled by their 6-0 hammering of Cork. With nine scored, the Hoops have also yet to concede a goal, unlike their opponents who have scored five but conceded one in their 2-1 victory over Shelbourne.
This evening, Georgie Kelly is available again for Dundalk but Patrick McEleney is “touch and go” to make his first appearance of the season. Sean Murray and John Mountney also miss out again for Vinny Perth’s Lilywhites.
At the other end of the table, Cork City will be keen to put their dreadful start to the campaign behind them against Finn Harps at Turner’s Cross.
In three games, City have shipped 10 goals and scored none, while Harps, who had their last fixture, against Shels, postponed because of heavy snow at Finn Park, have a creditable four points to show from their first two games.
“I think the onus is on us to take the game to Harps,” said City boss Neale Fenn. “We want to go and win the game, and I feel that we can. We have learned a lot over the last few games and we need to go out and show a true reflection of what we are all about. I have belief in our squad, I have belief in the players and I believe that we have goals in us.” City have Deshane Dalling back from suspension,but Conor Davis again misses out.
For the visitors, Adrian Delap is available for selection having sat out the 1-1 draw with Derry City due to ineligibility. Mark Timlin is out for the season and Shane McEleney is doubtful after sustaining a knock in last week’s North West derby. New signing Alexander Kogler, brought in from Austrian club Grazer AK, won’t be available until next week’s game against Dundalk. Elsewhere, in the Premier Division tonight, Derry City host Bohemians at the Brandywell and Shelbourne welcome St Patrick’s Atheltic to Tolka Park.
Meanwhile, in the First Division, it’s Athlone Town v Cabinteely, Bray Wanderers v Wexford, Drogheda United v Longford Town and UCD v Cobh Ramblers.
All this evening’s SSE Airtricity League games kick off at 7.45pm.