By Ronan Murphy
|SPOTLIGHT: MOLDE FK
|If Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had at any point started to think that management was a cakewalk after securing consecutive Tippeligaen titles in his first two seasons at Molde, the 2013 campaign will have been a rather stark wake-up call to the former Manchester United striker.
Currently sat 11th in the 16-team division, the side from Norway’s picturesque west have spent much of the season at the bottom of the table with only one win from their opening 11 games as Solskjaer’s side struggled without influential defender Vegard Forren, who joined Southampton last January but has since returned after an unsuccessful spell in England.
However, an upturn in form that began shortly before Norway’s month-long mid-season break has seen the champions go on a six-match unbeaten run, while the disappointment of losing creative fulcrum Magnus Wolff Eikrem to Heerenveen in recent weeks has been somewhat offset following the arrivals of 18-year-old attacker Mats Moller Daehli from Old Trafford and highly-rated Lillestrom striker Fredrik Gulbrandsen.
In Molde, Sligo face a talented team whose inconsistency this season reflects their relatively fledgling squad. Midfield pairing Etzaz Hussain (also formerly of Manchester United’s academy) and Emmanuel Ekpo are the young but significant heart of the side, while Nigerian striker Daniel Chima is MFK’s leading scorer this term, with eight goals in all competitions.
After falling at the first hurdle the past two years in Europe, League of Ireland champions Sligo Rovers face a daunting task in their first ever Uefa Champions League game when they take on Molde on Thursday at the Showgrounds.
Bit o' Red boss Ian Baraclough saw his side lose 4-2 on aggregate to Slovakian opponents Spartak Trnava in last season's Europa League, but believes his players will have learned from the experience of European football. "I certainly learnt about my players," Baraclough told Goal. "We probably played a little bit differently to what we were used to week-in, week-out in the Airtricity League, so I know the players can adapt and I know we're very good technically."
Following a stellar start to the season, Sligo suffered a slump and now find themselves looking up at leaders St Patrick's Athletic having failed to beat their title rivals at home on Sunday afternoon. Forward Anthony Elding is suffering a drought in front of goal, but Baraclough has strengthened well by bringing in freescoring striker David McMillan from UCD.
Sligo's strength in depth should allow them to compete domestically as well as on the continent, with Baraclough confident that his side can progress, despite seeing both St Pat's and Drogheda United knocked out of the Europa League last week. However, the Champions League is a much more difficult prospect, with the Bit o' Red pitted against Tippeligaen holders Molde.
Shamrock Rovers looked to break the glass ceiling for Irish clubs by reaching the Europa League Group Stage in 2011-12, but no club has since come close to repeating the feat. Sligo must progress past two qualification rounds to ensure themselves group stage participation this year, with Molde the first obstacle to overcome on Wednesday.
Underperforming domestically, the draw against Molde is almost the best Baraclough could have hoped for in the Second Qualifying Round, and the English manager has belief in his players to progress. "There's no reason why a club from this country can't make it very close," Baraclough said. "Whether it's a playoff game or it's into the group stages and why not this year? That's the goal. You've got to reach for the stars at times."
The Showgrounds has not seen a home victory in Europe since 1994, when John Brennan's second-half goal saw the Bit o' Red knock out Maltese minnows Floriana. A victory over Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Molde would be a historic result for Rovers, but with Baraclough dreaming of playing in the Group Stage, it will be just the first step of an epic adventure.