Riga FC – Derry City, Skonto Stadions, 6 p.m.
(Riga lead 2-0 after the first leg)
Derry City can blame the others for stumbling over Europe’s top hurdle for the fifth consecutive campaign. They can find many excuses, the main one being the incomprehensible red card that Icelandic referee Vilhjalmur Thorarinsson showed Matty Smith during an unusually welcoming Brandywell.
Any sense of fairness disappeared when Ngonda Muzinga harassed Smith over the touchline in the 65th minute, the Latvians leading 1-0 thanks to Gabriel Ramos Da Penha’s bouncing finish. The Congolese defender stood on Smith’s ankle before elbowing him for good measure. The Scottish winger responded with a slight push from his side which was enough for Thorarinsson to become the star of the evening.
Derry players and management were livid with a valuable lesson learned seconds after Will Patching and assistant manager Alan Reynolds received yellow cards for being overzealous. First, Ngonda got rid of Joe Thompson before sending Ramos Da Penha down the left wing, where the Brazilian scuffed two defenders and helped Ukraine’s Oleksandr Filippov settle the tie.
“It’s the petulance of Matty,” said Derry manager Ruaidhrí Higgins, “there’s no doubt about that, but you also have to look at the incident and it’s absolutely not a red card. .”
It’s one or the other. Being an extremely strict officer in an age when spikes and blades are used as weapons seems odd, but raising your hand at the start of a potentially lucrative European race raises all sorts of questions about composure under pressure.
The punishment was severe on a brutal Candystripes attack that was far from their best form this season. They are set to give up €350,000 in prize money by exiting at the bottom of the Conference League ladder. Anything resembling last week’s half-hearted display and the Derry City project under Philip O’Doherty, so full of promise last winter, will suffer a significant setback.
“I just want the players to take their shackles off and play freely,” Higgins told the Derry Journal, “because I think when we click we’re a really good team.”
The winners will likely face Slovak club Ružomberok in the second round.
Sligo Rovers v Bala Town, The Showgrounds, 7pm
(Sligo lead 2-1 after the first leg)
Aidan Keena’s goals should swell Sligo Rovers’ coffers with a much-needed euro. This is timely as qualification for next season’s Conference League playoffs looks increasingly unlikely. Sligo sit fifth in the League of Ireland with a long way to go. Keena understood the need to deliver, with a tricky equalizer after Lassana Mendes gave the Welsh a surprise lead in last week’s home game. Kiwi Max Mata has picked up a winner to the delight of Rovers’ 400 traveling fans.
Keena, who is currently leading the League of Ireland goalscoring race, gave the club confidence by signing a two-year contract extension this week. After his lackluster spells at Hearts and Falkirk, the 23-year-old will be keen to help Sligo progress to a second-round encounter with Motherwell.